Friday, June 22, 2018

Lost in the Googleverse

Google maps is one of the most blatant examples of how technology creates an attrition in human abilities. The computer with its modern keyboard has all but killed cursive writing and similarly Google maps has eradicated not only the sense of direction (in those who were born with it), but the ability to figure out and parse where one is and find clever ways out of situations in which one is lost. People now use Google maps not just for driving but for simple walking and errands around a city like New York. God forbid you didn’t have your iPhone you might have to ask someone directions for a street like Great Jones which is not part of Manhattan's symmetrical grid. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was the ultimate survival manual and one of elemental documents of the age of discovery. Outside of sextons and simple telescopes most early transatlantic sailors had to hone their capacity to navigate using both intuition and an awareness of natural elements. Today, traits which are developed through everyday use and trial and error have become so foreign that without the latest guidance device most travelers are thrown into a state of utter panic. Deprived of their devices, they might actually have to look for landmarks, study topography and maybe even stoop to taking a look around before deciding which way to turn. However, these are precisely the traits that have been lost in the Faustian bargain with modernity.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Pornosophy: The X-Rated Version of Plato's Republic

In a recent Times Op-Ed piece ("Can There Be Good Porn?NYT, 3/5/18), the actress Stoya, tries to create a moral category with respect to the forbidden. X-rated films transact in nudity and in the intimacies of human sexual congress of all kinds. With the exception of fables like the emperor’s new clothes, most people don’t have the opportunity to see deluded people who think they’re dressed when they’re not. As for the varieties of sex, there have always been dark cubbyholes where people could go to view tainted souls who would for instance engage in sexual intercourse with dogs. The title of Jake Tapper's novel about the McCarthy period, The Hellfire Club, alludes to such societies. “I’m invested in the creation and spread of good pornography, even though I can’t say for certain what that looks like yet," Stoya remarks." We still don’t have a solid definition of what pornography is, much less a consensus on what makes it good or ethical.” Plato and Aristotle both tried to define what constituted the good and in his dialogue the Ion Plato deals with whether dramatic performance reached its epitome due to skill or the presence of a divine spirit—an interesting notion when it comes to porn. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Are the attributes of famous porn stars like Stoya or her estranged former partner James Deen, a form of Grace. There's a food chain involved in most human endeavor and it’s easy to define crooks as bottom feeders and saints as those who have sought the greater good. But there are reversals. Ostensibly the crooks of porn would be seeking cheap thrills with the pornographic good guys being those who trafficked in the notion of catharsis. And yet who is to say that enlightenment isn’t to be found in some cheap loop of a gangbang, while the pornographic equivalent of The Republic—could that have been Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire?—isn't predicated on a lie? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Final Solution: The Age of Hyperbole

Nixon Giving Checkers Speech (Wehwalt)
This is the age of hyperbole. Perhaps it’s an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, but many people appear to be imitating the hyperbolic locutions of their president. Superlatives are ubiquitous. Everyone seems to be bloviating about the wonderfulness of whatever they're doing (even if it involves hating their president). Have you ever noticed that even though someone makes you cringe, you find yourself talking like them? Maybe you don’t pound your shoe or fist like Nikita Khrushchev once purportedly did (accounts differ) or talk in the mawkish tone of Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech, but it’s interesting how strongly held sentiments can be an equal opportunity employer and how a mode of discourse can be extricated from its content so that it achieves a morally neutral status. Such is the case with President Trump’s nomenclature in which the human condition is either the epitome of heaven or hell. Of course, Trump is the classic salesman. He doesn’t qualify the endorsement of his product. It seemed like he was characterizing his meeting with Kim Jong-un as a great success before it even occurred. Nothing had been agreed on (and to this day none of the specifics of any nuclear disarmament have been worked out). However, he was already issuing kudos to both himself and the Korean dictator under the theory, one would guess, that the juggernaut of positive emotions would take on a life of its own and thus enable him to close the deal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Deja Vu or Been There Done That

Madame Blavatsky
Déjà vu is a concept that's often touted by people interested in paranormal phenomenon. On the other hand it’s like spirituality in general. There are always materialized representations of purportedly mystical behaviors. For instance, those who believe there's a meaning and purpose to the universe often espouse the notion that everything is as it's supposed to be. Well if you’re a determinist which is a bona fide scientific position, you'll be in agreement. The concatenation of history, biology and psychology has produced a walking fait accompli. As for déjà vu just travel down Route #1 anywhere in America and you'll have the feeling you’ve been there whether you have or not. It’s the same Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. Nowhere is this state of affairs more egregious than on the internet. Datafication is everywhere. You’re presented with mounds of information and a seemingly infinite number of sources or sites. Yet there's a curious homogenization in all this preponderance of information. Porn is one of the prime examples. Porn Hub purportedly gets ten of millions of hits per day. Every possible fantasy is freely available. However, curiously, everything seems the same. The more  you look the more you feel you’ve already been there. Déjà vu is the new ennui.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An "As If" Personality Lives At Least 9 Lives

cover of first edtion
Have you ever felt that you were an “as if “ personality living a narrative you’d read in a book or seen in a movie. Identification is the whole point of classics like The Catcher in the Rye and what’s astonishing is the variegated personalities that are capable of seeing themselves in the story, people who have perhaps never even been to Manhattan and have never heard about the clock in the Biltmore and any of extinct milieu that Salinger alludes to in the book. Great art seems to cut a large swath in which people can find room for their condition. So many people see themselves in Chekhov and identify with the longings of say his Three Sisters, Masha, Irina, and Olga that one wonders if the playwright wasn’t at times bothered by the fact that people seemed to have expropriated his creation, paying little credence to the fact that it was his not theirs. One might not say the same thing about Titus Andronicus. Few people identify with serving someone’s children to them at dinner, but isn’t there a little bit of Anna Karenina and War and Peace in everyone. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But he might more accurately have said to many of his readers “Madame Bovary, c’est vous!” to the extent that a good portion of the books following comes from romantics who see themselves in the plight of its anti-heroine. When Brecht created the idea of the Verfremdungseffek or “estrangement effect,” he was attempting to give his audiences back their own reality rather than sweeping them up into an Aristotelian catharsis. The fact is, however, that a good many people who read books do so because they want, if only for a short period of time, to be someone or be somewhere else.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Conspicuous Ostentation

Rolls-Royce's Flying Lady (Rundvald)
Is anyone who buys a Rolls Royce or a Bentley an asshole.? William Burden, the financier, used to travel around Manhattan in a Rolls with his initials on the license plate, while Mike Nichols had a Mercedes whose license read "anomie." Thorston Veblen coined the turn “conspicuous consumption.” But this is a kind of "conspicuous ostentation" and some might say that Nichols was more culpable since he wanted his cake and eat it too. He was rich and talented which gave him license, one would suppose, to vaunt his superiority over others. Of course the possession of anything of value could be disparaged, from a nice house to a painting, but there are those who possess things for show and those of great means who do everything in their power to avoid the jealous eyes of others.There are fabulously wealthy individuals you have never heard of and then there was the story of the legal secretary who accumulated a fortune by simply executing the same stock trades as her bosses ("96-Year-Old Secretary Quietly Amasses Fortune, Then Donates $8.2 Million,"NYT, 5/6/18) No one ever knew she had money until she died and she left a good part of her estate to the Henry Street Settlement. But back to the flashers? What explains the desire? Is it the peacock strutting its feathers in mating season? Is it a statement of the wish to dominate and intimidate others? Will Mr or Ms. Rolls or Bentley get their way? By the way Mercedes Anomie would be a cool name for someone who was seeking to reinvent him or herself, no? Of course Mike Nichols and William Burden are both dead and perhaps Shelley’s "Ozymandias" provides the most fitting epitaph for their cars, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Final Solution: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

The current foreign policy of the United States is a little reminiscent of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. You might remember the l975 Judith Rossner bestseller, based on a real story, about a young woman coming to a tragic end barhopping in Manhattan’s singles scene. Usually an administration will come forth with a cohesive policy, with soubriquets, whether they be “the domino theory,” “spheres of influence” or “strategic containment,” which create parameters that both allies and adversaries can employ in negotiations. But the Trump White House has embarked on what feels like a series of one-night stands. First there was the love affair with Macron, which turned sour when the U.S. rejected the Iran nuclear deal, then the disastrous G-7 summit after which Trump found himself literally in the embrace of Kim Jong-un—on the rebound as it were. If the past antics of the North Korean regime are an indicator, the young despot will have his way with an old man, then blow him off, having achieved a coveted notch in his belt. He'll be the first North Korean leader who's actually been validated and recognized by a sitting American president. But for all his bravado will the American leader find that he falls victim to the three L’s having been loved, laid and left?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Final Solution: The Ice Age

So Tyrannosaurus Trump met Brontasaurus Un in Singapore. The perpetuation of the male dominated hegemonic order would ostensibly be the price to be paid for peace. A pair of despots dividing up the spoils. Sound familiar? Two dinosaurs who have each other’s back with the fate of the world, or at least Asia, in their back pockets. In the l9th century the same game was known as colonialism. Now that we’re plunked down firmly in the world of post-colonialism, it’s good to remember that when the Ice Age came about the dinosaurs became extinct. In the meanwhile, there are all kinds of piddling little issues like the Mueller Investigation, Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen on one side and the fact that despite the teary-eyed affection Dennis Rodman displayed for the North Korean leader on CNN, Kim Jong-un is purportedly the murderer of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, his half brother, Kim Jong-nam and by proxy Otto Warmbier amongst others. But nothing really matters when you've got two big Pterodacytl paterfamilias exercising The Art of the Deal. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What to Look For In Meditation?

A lot of people meditate because they’re seeking enlightenment and they’re disappointed when they don’t achieve satori. The question is, what is enlightenment? It’s like God. There are anthropocentric notions of god and godhead and then there is Godwhich if such a notion exists may be totally separate from any conception one might have of it. If you free yourself from preconceptions of enlightenment, you might find that meditation is significant in terms of what you're not receiving, with the subtlety of the experience the very essence of what's to be parsed. Very simply in meditation you're sitting still rather than moving as you do in most  other activities of life. In addition, you're not interacting with anyone or anything. In the age of social media where the very concept of being unconnected, even in sleep, is increasingly being challenged, this can be an extraordinary, even life changing event. Meditation is a practice so you can undertake it without any guarantee of results and it's the absence it allows that's epiphanic. There's something elemental to doing nothing, to neither giving nor receiving. And that's one of the states that mediation allows the sitter to achieve.

Monday, June 11, 2018


In The Myth of Sisyphus  Camus wrote “There is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Camus himself committed at the age of 46 in a car accident, but his famous line is most often seen as a distant homiletic. You envision hands being raised in a classroom, as students rifle through underlined pages of the essay. Yet when the act hits you squarely in the face as it’s done this past week with the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, it’s hard to take a philosophical attitude. Suicide is a little like death itself. No one can know death unless you’ve been there and once you have crossed the line, you’re no longer going to be able to report back. Is suicide a message or simply a search for ultimate relief? Is it an act that's rationally taken or is the possibly copy cat nature of Bourdain's act, for instance (both Spade and Bourdain had daughters and both died by strangulation), the result of insanity, temporary or otherwise?  Obviously there’s no generalizing, but the fact that the two cases in the news represented particularly successful people who had every reason to live and people to live for makes it all the more difficult to understand. Severe depression can be an almost ineffable juggernaut which crushes the spirit, but the average person finds it easier to understand an existential predicament, such as that of the cab driver who recently took his own life ("A Taxi Driver Took His Own Life. His Family Blames Uber’s Influence," NYT, 5/1/18). The 104 year old Australian scientist who journeyed to Switzerland to die also is a case that is on the surface more easy to absorb (“David Goodall, 104, Scientist Who Fought to Die on His Terms, Ends His Life,"NYT, 5/10/18). Still in all, whatever the motivation, the reasons for this pulling down the blind, turning off the switch or lowering the curtain is something which suicides take to their graves.

Friday, June 8, 2018

#MeToo or Not To

What hash tag to use if you are opposed to the #MeToo movement? #NotMeToo or #MeToo—Not? You’re going to lose your job, your friends and most likely your significant other. So why not get your message to the right audience before you lose everything? You don’t want your Tweet to be for the birds. #NotMeTwo immediately stops the reader in their tracks. It’s like someone belching in your face. You’re going to recoil from the blatancy of the gaffe. On the other hand #MeToo—Not is very cagey. #MeToo is so ubiquitous that even if you don’t agree with the movement, you welcome the familiarity the way you do the McDonald’s “M” when you’re cruising into a stranger mall. #MeToo is our lingua franca. People may not like things about it and they may have had their problems over the treatment of Al Franken or Garrison Keillor, but in general it’s become the meat loaf or the cherry pie (as in H. Rap Brown’s “violence is as American as cherry pie") of liberal America. You don’t really care who anyone is voting for as long as they have a #MeToo posted outside their house next to the alarm company sign. It’s like the plastic security card used to get by the turnstiles of an office building. #MeToo is your “Advance to Go (Collect $200)” from Monopoly. Now that you’re in, you can do what ever you want, including negate everything the movement stands for—which, if the behavior of New York State’s former attorney general ("Eric Schneiderman Resigns as New York Attorney General Amid Assault Claims by 4 Women,NYT, 5/7/18) is an indicator, is what is happening across the board.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Have You Ever Snubbed Someone Who Doesn't Know You Exist and Other Pyrrhic Victories?

Have you ever snubbed someone who doesn't know you exist? It’s a sublime pleasure that’s reserved for a select group of Don Quixote like windmill chasers and Iceman Cometh pipe dreamers. Pretending that you have no interest in a person who would obviously be very interesting to you in terms of Freud’s two primal categories of love and work is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. You emerge triumphant while being able to savor the results of defeat at the same time, having come away with nothing more than the frustrating feeling of punching your way out of a paper bag. But what if you gave into your true desires and walked over to a coveted object of either beauty or potential opportunity and found that you were providing gris for somebody else’s mill and that you were fueling feelings of triumph and superiority that were even more enduring due to the fact that they didn’t merely derive from punching air? What if you introduced yourself as Jane Doe and explained that you were always a great admirer of Mr. or Ms. Big’s company, artwork or simply face and found that the reaction was one of an indifference bordering on disdain? Would you then try to convince yourself that you would have been all the more happy if you hadn’t tested the waters and could continue to enjoy the fact that the ball was still in your court and that you had the final say? The answer is probably yes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Existentialism For Dummies

Do you ever feel you’re living this preternaturally long existential moment that’s on the edge of parody? You’ve been saying “what does it all mean?” ever since you were an impressionable adolescent reading L'Etranger. No, the burning sands of Amagansett are not equatable to the hot streets of Northern Africa. Staring out at a bikini clad girl while sipping on a warm can of Diet Coke is not the equivalent of the war time experiences that Camus had a fighter and editor of Combatthe newspaper of the French resistance. The Graduate may have been another formative experience. However, the alienation you felt when one of your parents friends advised you to go into some practical profession  does not put you in the same league with the author of The Myth of Sisyphus who declared, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Having an ingrown toenail is not the same as Saul (aka the Apostle Paul) having a vision on the Road to Damascus. It’s not to say that things aren’t either difficult or bothersome. It’s just that an important aspect of being a grownup is realizing that it’s not useful to hyperbolize and globalize. Despite tomes like Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, which deal with the metaphysics of the mundane, everyday misery is not a problem that's either worthy of or soluble by philosophy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

First Reformed

Imagine two houses of worship with the names First Reformed and Abundant Life. It’s a little like the old Jerusalem and Rome dichotomy as the two impulses might manifest themselves in the Protestant church. Those are the spiritual homes that Paul Schrader employs as props in his latest movie. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the troubled leader of a 250 year-old ministry that had once been a stop on the underground railway, but whose pews are now empty. One of the film’s central themes is isolation. Schrader frames his shots emphasizing the narrowness of the church, the single bed in which his minister sleeps and the solitary desk at which he writes. The absence of furnishings resonate the spiritual void and the feeling of isolation is underscored by Hawke’s interior monologue. As if to add insult to injury, Toller finds himself nursing souls which cannot be healed—one of which is an environmentalist, out to destroy the very thing he seeks to preserve—human life. “This is about your despair, your lack of hope, the sickness unto death,” he says invoking Kierkegaard. Unfortunately, he’s not preaching to the choir; even he himself is not convinced. Schrader is a famous student of his own medium and early in his career wrote Transcendental Style in FilmBresson was one of the directors he dealt with and there may be a tendency to compare the film to the French director’s iconic Diary of a Country Priest particularly due to the journaling and the feeling of constriction that define the film. But there are also intimations of Bergman’s Winter Lightthe first in a spiritual trilogy which included The Silence and Through a Glass Darklyparticularly in an outburst in which Toller tells Esther (Victoria Hall), an Abundant Life staffer who loves him, that he “despises” her. Eventually, by the way, Toller is saved by a character named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who’s hardly a virgin.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Poetry in Motion

Johnny Tillotson (MGM)
One can be prosaic which refers to a deficiency of poetic transcendence, but prosody actually refers to the stuff from which great poems are made. In Shakespeare’s plays people speak in poetry which is often filled with similes, metaphors and other figures of speech that Elizabethans would unlikely have used in their everyday speech. Few murderers in any age summon up the eloquence of Lady’s Macbeth’s, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” Marc Anthony’s “Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me yours ears” from Julius Caesar is often sighted as an example of the bard’s use of iambic pentameter. Imagine if Donald Trump had had an inspiring English teacher at the New York Military Academy and instead of simply discountenancing the matter of collusion with the Russians was able to reach to poetic heights in his Tweets. Of course, sometimes very beautiful passages from novels are referred to as poetic and when Roosevelt sang “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was rendering a speech that soared to Shakespearean heights of poetry as did Churchill when he said "Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” Everyone has their own private language, which is more often than not tantamount to the kind of doggerel produced by Ogden Nash like for example,  “the cow is of the bovine ilk, one end is moo, the other milk” and people lull themselves into a kind of benign stupor with dirty little ditties like “pee pee comes out of my big fat snout, it comes out of my snout no doubt.” Remember Johnny Tillotson's “Poetry in  Motion” which was a big hit in l961?

Friday, June 1, 2018

How to End This Story

It’s very hard to figure out the end of anything. Stories are difficult and lives just happen and even people with a low opinion of themselves still consider that they are going to defy Eliot’s words and go out with a bang. When you look at it the Western conception of God is of a creative. He is called the creator, so if there is a God he is in the writing or storyboarding business if film is his chosen medium and he, she or it has the odious task with trying to figure out the ending of stories everyday. The British critic Frank Kermode wrote a tome called The Sense of an Ending. However, God probably doesn't have time to read it considering all the submissions including the King James edition of the bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita which come his way. So writers and artists in general are kind of in the position of God, thought they, to some extent, have a freer hand. A novelist, short story writer, or long form poet is basically free to do what he wants, yet God, if we are to take the Old Testament to heart, is dealing with a creature who is born with the gift of free will. It’s as if someone started your story for you and then told you to figure out the ending, with no recognition of the setup and foreshadowing that are going to bring about a satisfying denouement. People die all the time and it’s rather anti-climactic. To quote Thoreau they "lead lives of quiet desperation," thinking there will be some ultimate piece of punctuation that will make sense of all the run on sentences, and lo there’s nothing—few survivors in this day of bare bones nuclear families and not even a decent turnout at the funeral.