Monday, May 21, 2018


Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience is set in the world of London’s  Orthodox Jewish community. But the revelation that's one of the film’s themes is hardly one of a religious sort. Sexual identity is the lingua franca and it's when Esti (Rachel McAdams) expresses hers that she runs awry of the values of the fundamentalist community in which she lives. Of course sex is a gigantic topic and the movie actually avoids the danger of becoming a reductio ad absurdum. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) the rabbi’s daughter, who has turned her back on the cloistered life, provides the catalyst for the movie’s stereotypic energy. But to the director’s credit she along with Esti husband, the rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) all break away from their prescribed roles to credit the movie with a certain humanity. The film begins with the exhortation, “Hashem gave us choice which is both a privilege and burden” and ends in just about the same place. The more profound problem is that the narrative ties all the loose ends together with a Solomonic justice which is hard to buy, considering all the passions that have been unleashed. If there's an overriding emotion it’s that of equanimity, a sentiment that some viewers may find hard to square, with the terrain of the  subliminal desires Disobedience describes. Spoiler alert: the film's initial triangulation becomes a kind 21st century trinity.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Delusion of Immortality

A human being begins to die the moment they’re born, but along the way this salient fact of human existence is almost completely forgotten. It’s a little like free trade greasing the wheels of commerce. The reminder of death acts like a tariff that can dull the trading in life experience. This is one reason why people are shocked when they’re lives are brought to a stand still because of illness and disease. It’s as if the powers on high were in violation of the heavenly contract. Day after day humans are given hints about  the fragility of life. The leaves die in autumn, tiny insects are stepped on and spider’s webs and their inhabitants are neatly extinguished with dust busters. Yet no degree of warning seems to do the job. People have built-in forgetters when it comes to death and it’s something which curiously also makes them less prone to appreciate life when they have it. If you know that life is short by any standards and that any life is but a footnote in the history of the universe, you’re more likely to relish each hour of every day. It’s unfortunate that the nature of human defense mechanisms are such that they allow denial to triumph over consciousness. You of course don’t want to greet a baby with a morose funeral dirge. However, isn’t there something more life affirming about acknowledging transience than allowing the kind of delusory feelings that ultimately lead people to squander the gift of existence?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Homo Cologuardis

photo of Cologuard box by Francis Levy
Back when you were in high school you were in a totally different stage of human evolution.Though homo sapiens roamed the earth many were still hetero at least in name, and men still had a fascination with women’s undergarments and what women looked like naked. Some women may testify to a countervailing sentiment reflected in little homilies like “it’s not how big it is but what you do with it.” Parenthetically decades later and depending on one’s orientation this last turns out to be a total piece of white washing. Of course size matters and guys with little dicks and those who love them simply have to find ways of compensating for what amounts to a disability. But getting back to our current age of true homo sapienality in which hetero sapiens are the exception and the word bra no longer creates a frisson, it’s the contents of the Cologuard Box, with it’s stool sampling kit that’s the real source of mystery. If you’ve ever received a prescription you know this popular colon cancer screener comes in a big box and the first thing you ask is, what the hell's inside? You know that doody smells and you’re going to be sending yours somewhere, but what you’re receiving is tantamount to a brick shithouse or Fort Knox. How many degrees of separation are required? It’s all a little reminiscent of Ben Casey, the medically oriented TV series that starred Vincent Edwards and Sam Jaffe back in the 60’s. You remember the lingo scalpel, forceps…Now it’s shitter, feces, container.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Final Solution: Pompeo, Clausewitz and Etherege

According to The Times ("What’s Kim Jong-un’s Surname? Mike Pompeo Is Learning the Hard Way,NYT, 5/9/18), our new Secretary of State might have been challenged on a significant fact. It’s particularly surprising since he'd formerly held a position (as CIA director) that deals with intelligence gathering. It was the kind of malapropism that characters make in Restoration comedies like George Etherege’s Man of Mode. The Times quoted one irate Twitter post regarding this snafu. “Somebody really needs to have a word with Secretary of State Pompeo before he meets anybody in North Korea,” The Times quotes from the Tweet, “He just referred to Kim Jong-un as ‘Chairman Un.' That’s like, I dunno, calling Winston Churchill ‘Prime Minister Spencer.’” Or the North Koreans referring to the American president as Mr. Rump. Apparently Mr. Pompeo’s earlier trip to North Korea was not a fact finding mission or he would have gotten the North Korean leader’s name right. Of course due to RexTillerson's cuts, Pompeo might have found himself understaffed at the time of the trip and who knows what other details were mistaken. For instance, who knows if Pompeo had been given the wrong address for the presidential palace and ended up having to call the North Korean ministry for help when his entourage got lost on some back street in Pyongyang? But no one likes it when their name is misspelled or mispronounced and one of the first premises of diplomacy that may go back to Clausewitz is, know your adversary.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Eastern Shore Journal: Royal Oak

Royal Oak Commiunity United Methodist Church (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
Harriet Taubman and Frederic Douglas both urged Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the Union Army and a small plaque now stands in front of a roadside cemetery in the town of Unionville where 18 Talbot Country slaves and free blacks are buried. The area has a liberal history and feeling that’s more humorously communicated in a street sign which advertises Love’s Folly Road. In Royal Oak, a hamlet which might be termed a suburb of St Michaels stands the clapboard wood United Methodist Church in front of which is a beached boat reflecting another aspect of the local heritage, the maritime history which infuses practically every element of everyday life. The church for all its modesty still manages to sport stained glass windows that almost have a tromp l’oeil effect; they hardly seem to soar and look more like a fading painting that's both sublime and wistful at the same time. But the weathered structure is a landmark that indelibly captures much of the feeling of this area of the Chesapeake Bay region, a mixture of the spiritual and the arcane, in which the old co-exists but is rarely obliged to give way to the new. Tolerance is perhaps the best way to describe the enchanting landscape where growth and preservation go hand in hand and age doesn’t automatically lead to obsolescence.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Eastern Shore Journal: St. Michaels

Restoration of Edna E. Lockwood (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
You have undoubtedly heard of the Slow Food Movement with its unconscionably long meals and its insistence on the savoring of every bite. But there’s a global form of this impulse that may be more palatable to those who still have a nostalgia for fast food iconography. If you journey to the town of St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, time seems to have come to a complete and utter halt. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum overlooking the harbor where on a weekend afternoon in May, a classic wedding will be taking place, with a bride in a long gown attended by her maids. But you will also see the vestiges of a world gone by. The Edna E. Lockwood a Bugeye Oyster dredger built on Tilghman Island out of logs rather than planks in 1889 has been in the process of restoration since l975. Words like “gunwale” and “breast hook” are still employed by the shipbuilders who continue to ply their ancient trade. And then there's the lighthouse. Back in l892 two cottage style lighthouses were built with fog signals and bells. And where else can you learn that a typical watch on a boat lasted four hours with the bell being rung every 30 minutes. There are the antique bazaars in which whole lifetimes seem to be on display. It’s not the “A Stop at Willougby” episode of the Twilight Zone. Life hasn’t come to an end in St. Michael’s. In fact it’s flourishing, albeit at an exponentially slower pace. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Juggernaut of Self

Have you ever felt like you were drowning in a juggernaut of self? Have you ever felt your egotistical concerns spilling out of you like volcanic lava that eradicates everything in its path? Talk about Pandora’s Boxes, once you jump off the precipice into the well of self-involvement, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. Blinding selfishness of this chronic sort can hit you like a rabbit punch and it occurs like eczema, herpes, shingles and other viral skin conditions that can lie dormant for years before they strike. You are never immune. You might be struck in the middle of a particularly selfless moment when you receive a message that's the equivalent to the dreaded letters potential recruits received during the dreaded days when there was a draft. The only difference is that the message comes not from the Department of the Army but from the executive center of your brain. Actually it may be the mind that’s responsible, but the activity itself is better known as belly button gazing. But does the juggernaut of self actually take a form? You think of genies popping out of bottles or the spirits and doppelganger’s that hover around the Christian self still smarting from the trauma of original sin. Is it one of those dark presences of gothic myth that emerges from a Transylvanian forest or the devil incarnate, a dark brooding fecal cloak that emerges from the deepest recesses of one’s being? The Revenge of the Body Snatchers? The Night of the Living Dead? The answer is yes.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sperm Count: Lapdance Island

In a Times Sunday Business piece, "A Spy's Tale: The TV Prankster Who Says He Became a Double Agent," (NYT, 4/27/18) Barry Meier tells the story of a former television producer named Robert Moore (no relation to Roger one would suppose) who produced a “Candid Camera” type show “that conned the unsuspecting.” Eventually Moore fell upon hard times and went off to a life of corporate espionage but not before unleashing a series of spoofs that really seem like they would be ripe for a second life. “On one show,” Meier remarks, “politicians were tricked into campaigning against a street drug called ‘cake,’ which didn’t exist. On another program, men were fooled into auditioning for a ‘Survivor’-style show called ‘Lapdance Island’ supposedly set on an island inhabited by lapdancers." The fact that Moore didn’t achieve success with these gambits shouldn’t stop him from backtracking and making another mid-life change. Spying has only gotten him into trouble (he's become the subject of legal suits). Plainly his future lies in being a mixture of Jerry Springer and Allen Funt, who created the original “Candid Camera.” “Lapdance Island” may have been intended as put on, but it’s exactly what the public wants in our era where people are naming their newborn daughters Stormy and it isn’t farfetched to imagine Michael Avenatti as the dean of the Stormy Daniels Institute for Forensic Law. The reality TV show “Lapdance Island” could easily spawn a feature film and then a series of sequels “Lapdance Island” #1,#2, #3. “Lapdance Island #3” would naturally be followed by a Broadway musical of the same name with a musical score by Carole King and Frank Valli and a series of “Apprentices” produced by Donald Trump, of one-time presidential fame. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Pornosophy: Wash Your Hands

All those who feel that sex is a wonderful thing that comes easily raise their hands. All those who find sex to be a tortured activity filled with haunting feelings and dysfunction whether it be impotence, frigidity or the detachment symptomatic of alexithymia raise your hands. All those who think that Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Eric Schneiderman, Eliot Spitzer, Matt Lauer and Anthony Weiner are simply exceptions raise your hand. All those who think that sexual abuse is only a male problem raise your hands. All those who believe that life has always been this way and that problems that have existed are just coming to the surface raise your hands. All those who believe that there's something in the nature of the modern family and the ways in which sexual identity is defined that's exacerbating sexual confusion raise your hands. All those who feel that pornography has created a generation of sexual predators raise your hands. All those who believe that the exponential increase in the popularity of pornography of an increasingly violence nature is symptomatic of other causes raise your hands. All those who believe that paraphilias are more predominant in our current age than they have been in the past raise your hands? All those who believe that all sex offenders must be treated as criminals raise your hands. All those who believe that humiliating and destroying the lives of even those guilty of minor offenses is the only way to prevent recidivism raise your hands. All those who believe that the most rabid inquisitors may be hiding their own complicity raise your hands. All those who feel they're personally immune to sexual deviance and never would have thought about things like gagging, facials, golden showers, forced feminization and foot worship, who never imagined female anchors reporting the news in stirrups or naked male politicians on leashes with their scrotums bouncing merrily like dogs unless their friends told them about these fantasies raise your hands. All those who think the death of God or an inquietude in nature such as you see in Lear are somehow related to all these scandals raise your hands. All those who don’t have any answers to these things and remain totally stunned by the revelations they read in the news or see on TV raise your hands.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Were Cezanne's Apples Enough?

"Still Life With Apples" by Paul Cezanne (MoMA)
In his review of the show of “Cezanne Portraits” at the National Gallery, (“High Anxiety, The New Yorker, 4/9/118) Peter Schjeldahl cites a l929 essay by D.H. Lawrence which praises “Cezanne for establishing like no other artist a recognition that ‘matter actually exists,'” independent of human self-regard.” Sounds a little like the old paradigm of a branch dropping in the forest when no one is looking, doesn’t it? Schjeldahl goes on to remark that “Lawrence saw Cezanne as striving to objectify the ‘appleness'--the thing in itself--of people, too, yet without much success because, the writer decided, they were beyond his ken.” What would you prefer to paint a person or an apple? Most people don’t have a choice. But this whole question of what Schjeldahl refers to a “quiddity” or what the Kant termed “ding an sich” or noumenon rather than phenomenon places Cezanne right up against another philosophical issue. Ultimately, casting aside the question of people and things, the problem may go right back to Plato's Forms. It’s what the cave dweller wasn’t able to perceive when he saw only the shadows of reality on the wall. Maybe Cezanne was the ultimate Platonist and who cares if he didn’t do justice to humans, if he succeeded in taking his apples where angels feared to tread?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sperm Count: When You Retire From Masturbation, Do You Get a Pension?

When you retire from masturbation, do you get a pension? This is a question asked by many people who are moving on in life and deal with issues like Social Security and Medicaid. Masturbating is a job like anything else and while it might not have produced a salary from which a social security contribution was deducted, it still rightfully should produce benefits for men and women over 65. Unlike certain law firms and teaching institutions, masturbation does not have a mandatory retirement age and there are many people who will choose to masturbate until a ripe old age which will make the question of pensions a non-issue (unlike with Social Security for instance masturbators do not lose their accrued benefits if they fail to collect premiums by the date of their eligibility). In fact, some anecdotal reports indicate that masturbation is one of the few callings for which an older demographic proves to be particularly well-suited. You might not choose to employ a senior citizen to do heavy construction work or to involve him or herself in a criminal defense case which involves long hours of cross-examining witnesses, but if you yourself are an aging baby boomer you're likely to find that there's no reason to give up your masturbating. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Cosmic Yawn

Timeline of the Metric Expansion of Space (NASA/WMAP Science Team)
Is the universe a hostile or benign place or is it merely indifferent, presenting its inhabitants with a cosmic yawn? For there to be the kind of magnanimity that Buddhists talk about there has to be a meaning and order to things. Those who believe that everything is the way it’s supposed to be or meant to be often point to the symmetry and order of mathematics. How could there be a Pythagorean Theorem if nothing made sense? How could there be the beauty and symmetry of crystalline formations, Poincare’s Conjecture or a quantum physics without some higher force running the show? The contravening argument relates to the fact that the laws of nature whether they’re posited by Newton or Einstein are really just superficial manifestations and more a reflection of the minds of those who made them up than the reality of dark energy or dark matter. And of course we have a whole branch of mathematics which underscores the dubiety of the notion of order, i.e. chaos theory. The anti-Christ represented so eloquently by Dostoevsky in his famous chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, The Grand Inquisitor is one of clearest examples of a self-imploding universe bent on its own destruction. But one of the most interesting representations of the nature of the universe may rest with those who argue that it’s neither benign nor malevolent, but merely like the executive top man in a very large conglomerate who has no way of keeping track of all of his employees. Under this theory, even if there is a God, he, she or it is not some sort of celestial phone operator waiting to answer all the incoming calls. All forms of life and lifelessness go on, creating new paradigms that are like snowflakes, no two of which are ever the same, while what or whoever the higher order or consciousness is, simply and ineffably continues to delegate its power.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Chaim Soutine: Flesh

"Carcass of Beef" by Chaim Soutine (Albright-Knox)
“Chaim Soutine: Flesh,” as blunt and emphatic as it might seem, is an elegant title for the current Jewish Museum Exhibit. Soutine remarked, “They say Courbet could give in his nudes all the character of Paris. I want to show all that is Paris in the carcass of an ox.” And that is what the Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, who studied art in Vilnius, proceeded to do in paintings with names like “The Donkey” ((1934), “Plucked Goose” (1933), “The Bull” (1940) and “Sheep Behind Fence” (1940). “Still Life with Rayfish” (1929) was based on a painting by Jean-Simeon Chardin (1725-6) and he paid homage to Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox”(1655) in his own "Carcass of Beef" (1925)--as would, by the way, Francis Bacon in his "Figure with Meat" (1954). The curators remark, “Chaim Soutine still lifes embrace the modernist notion of gesture. Material and color are as much a subject of the art as the objects depicted.” His expressionistic work hovers on the edge of abstraction just in the way it does with nineteenth century painters like Van Gogh, but the intensity of the brushwork recalls the fauvist esthetic. Remember the fauves were referred to as wild beasts? Stendhal famously wrote The Charterhouse of Parma.  But Soutine, who legendarily found his subjects in abbatoirs, might have written a novel entitled The Slaughterhouse of Paris.