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

Hangman


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

Conatus



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

Counterphobia?



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.