Monday, March 18, 2019

Transit



Christian Petzold’s Transit is a cubist narrative, but the difference between it and say “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” is that the Picasso masterpiece is about a whorehouse. Here the experience of watching the movie is a little like pickup sticks. There are strands of narrative which center around refugees and exile and in particular the question of who forgets, the person being left or the person who leaves? However, the real subject is veiled in a series of dead ends. The air of mystery is aided and abetted by the fact that the movie inhabits an alternate universe in which the Nazi occupation of France is taking place in the present time (the movie is actually based on novel by Anna Seghers written in l942). In this sense it’s a little like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. There are four deaths in Transit and each of them is someone that the film’s protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) tries or in fact succeeds coming into contact with. The message might be stay away from this guy. Add to this that the fact that one of the deceased is a writer named Weidel whose identity is fungible and becomes the source of a hard to come by exit visa. The confusion is increased by the fact that much of the plot is farmed out to yet another voice, that of the bartender who apparently has witnessed much of the action and is writing about it in retrospect. Weidel’s writing also plays a cameo role as part of the evidence which Georg uses in establishing his identity before his interlocutor at the American consulate. Talk about unreliable narrators. Nothing seems to be consummated in the film, not escape, nor even a sexual act with the dead writer’s vampish wife, Marie (Paula Beer). 

Friday, March 15, 2019

M et Mme. Ovary


Let’s face this fact. Chances are things probably won't change. Aspiration is  nice. People, especially those who read too many magazines, jump through hoops to be happy. They drag each other into marriage counseling, they attend ashrams, they take cooking courses, they question their sexual orientation and maybe do something about it like transition (or not). They become like dervishes, trying free love or paying for it (or not). They decide to move to another city (or not). They decide to go it on their own (or not). They become vegetarians. They only eat farm fed beef or poultry. They meditate (that’s a big one and on the basis of the anecdotal evidence one would wish them good luck since they’ll need it). They do dangerous things like ascend Everest (or not). Climb cliffs without ropes (or not) and endeavor to shake things up by exhausting exercise regimens like running a marathon, riding a century or doing both in an Iron Man (or not). They attempt to become spiritual and commune with God (or not) or with the nature or the universe a la pantheists like Spinoza (or not) or they gain solace in philately or numismatics (or not). A lot of people spend considerable amounts of time and energy to supposedly achieve a modicum of happiness and once they've gotten all their pieces on the board and moved them into the appropriate positions ie made their bed, then they have to sleep in it. Some people will find that after all the time, trouble and expense that they have attained a state of karma that's close to satori and some are just going to find themselves scowling about life being “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." The latter is undeniably true! No two ways about it.Was the Duke of Windsor really all that happy once he abdicated and had Wallis Warfield all to himself? Some people may kill themselves when they realize it’s all a charade, but there are others who are content to just go along for the ride and when you come down to it, that’s an approach that makes a helluva lot of sense. Everybody ends up in a room staring either at the reflection of their own face in the mirror or that of some other on whom they confer a host of not always complimentary feelings.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Final Solution: Separate But Equal


Here is a brilliant aside from de Tocqueville quoted by Louis Menand in his New Yorker piece on Plessy v. Fergusson (“In the Eye of the Law,” 2/4/19) where Menand also cites C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” For example, minorities facing similar forms of discrimination often find themselves at war against each other--a propensity which is often hidden under the veneer of good intentions. On the other side of the fence, the old South was feudal. Repression was a form of definition. A slave was going to be less a threat to a plantation owner than someone from the underclass, who had rights and privileges, along with a certain ingenuity or entrepreneurial talent that would challenge the status quo. Racism and prejudice are multidimensional, but in some ways economic inequality plays a central role in the perpetuation of these forms of discrimination. A wealthy liberal is less threatened by a minority than another worker struggling to make ends meet, who's competing for the same job, for which say and immigrant might be willing to take less pay. It's like children in one of those large families who fight with each other over two scarce commodities: love and scraps. Trump appeals to his base with this very message. It’s not that caravans from Central America are murderers and drug lords, it’s that they will undercut the market and accept a lower wage.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Take Me To Your Dendrite

Coleridge by Peter Vandyke (1795)
Pleasure is often mentioned in connection with serotonin the neurotransmitter that runs between the synapses of the brain. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac work to maintain a certain serotonin level and inhibit its reuptake. This model poses problems, however, since it envisions the brain as a solipsistic device, a chemical engine that may respond to existential stimuli, but which exists as its own psychopharmacological lab. Ultimately with the right mixture of drugs one could live a more pleasure-filled, or at the very least less painful existence. There has been much recent talk about the varieties of animal consciousness, but in the classic view, animals don’t possess the self-reflexive consciousness that allows them to realize they're having a good time. "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" was the title of a famous essay by Thomas Nagel, but it’s hard not to conclude that the average bat is literally in the dark. On the other hand anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs are only the beginning when it comes to dealing with psyche. The famous Coleridge poem, written under the influence of opium, begins “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree.” And the hell with drugs. Consciousness separated from the body and running freely through cyberspace may provide the ultimate high.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Big Shoes

brogue Oxford shoes (photo: ASuitableWardrobe)
Big shoes to fill is an expression that’s sometimes used when a person is taking over a position that may have been run by someone of authority who had a reputation in a particular field. It may also refer to a son or daughter taking over for his or her father or mother in the family business or just taking on the role of pater or mater familias upon the demise of a parent. Some people literally try on shoes or other elements of attire because they feel it will change them. For instance there was a period back in the 50’s and 60’s where you would dress for success. Getting the right suit and rep tie at Brooks Brothers was almost as important as having an MBA from Harvard and this was the period starting with the Stork Club and ending with the demise of Studio 54 when nightlife with its emphasis on appearance was a convenient metaphor for the stratification of society. While in England, you had to have aristocratic lineage to attend certain clubs or even get a room at the Connaught, in New York it was a matter of wearing black tie or the equivalent that distinguished you from the crowd entreating the pickers behind the velvet ropes. The selection process was primitive. However it catered to a uniquely fetishistic approach to self-definition, in which the part (often the most superficial part, attire), was representative of the whole. As quickly as one conjured the images of the Duke of Windsor or Wallis Warfield, one might change uniforms, feeling the shoes of Jane or John Doe more comfortably fit the foot.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Room at the Top



The mystery behind Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), currently in revival at Film Forum, is what constitutes the fatal love between Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret) and Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey). Alice is an unhappily married French woman living in industrial England and Joe ia an ambitious working class war veteran. Joe is the ultimate arriviste and his ambition is primarily sexual to that extent that his desire is created by the perception of what he thinks he can’t have. “Find a girl of your own…” his boss warns. “Class?” Joe responds, angrily finishing the sentence. “Background” is the reply. Taking off from the title (is there room at the top?) the film is shot in angles. In the first scene Joe sees Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, getting into a sports car from a second floor window. He’ll eventually follow her into a lingerie shop in which the bra she might wear is tauntingly displayed in a storefront window. Is Joe enthralled by the woman or the world she represents? Is he stalled at the intersection of sex and ambition? Ironically he spots both his lovers looking up at the same stage of the local theater troop and one that he’s significantly laughed off of when he tries to read some lines. Later in the movie Alice and Joe will escape to Sparrow Hill which looks down on their industrial town of Warnley. It’s a scene right out of a Thomas Hardy novel and it may give a clue to the essence of the love which is so uncharacteristic of the bounder Harvey plays. Love freed from social climbing is as foreign to Joe as Signoret’s accent. It’s basically an unnatural act which flourishes in natural settings (besides the room of the title there's actually a lover’s aerie in the countryside which is a respite from the cruel dog eat dog world in which Joe is trying to make his way). The real evolution of the movie revolves around the development of Joe's sensibility. His relationship with Alice changes him (it's something Alice actually remarks on in a scene) and he's ultimately caught in a vice. Room at the Top was one of the first of the angry young man films that included The L-Shaped Room (1962), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and of course Look Back in Anger (1959)..Shot in black in white it captures the gloom and entrapment of the industrial North. The whistle of a teapot segues into the shrill sound of a train’s steam engine as an ongoing leitmotif. Irony is the emotion that accompanies the film’s tragic denouement. “You’ve got everything you wanted,” is the taunt that Joe faces more than once. As he drives away from a wedding that seems like a sentence, his new wife declares, “Now we really belong to each other, til death us do part.” There are artful bits of stage business throughout like one scene in which school kids are coming up a road towards Joe as he descends and one final truly lovely touch. The car carrying Susan and Joe away to their future disappears into the horizon and then just a lone figure crosses the road.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Elementary Particles



In essence man isn’t free. That was the message of determinists like Zola and his latter day incarnation, Michel Houellebecq, whose The Elementary Particles is an essay on the shadow fate (in the form of history) casts, particularly in an atmosphere of seeming freedom. The sexual liberation of the 60’s which is the chrysalis out of which the novel grows, is ultimately rendered as a virus rather than an ideology. This was Freud’s message too, epitomized by the famous “anatomy is destiny” quote. Protestantism and in particular Calvinism lend a totally different etiology to determinism, in the notion of predestination. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is an attempt to pinpoint the bizarre form such a constraint of liberty take in the formation of the free market. In other words the very idea of freedom can be loaded with contradiction. In his Justice For Hedgehogs the late Ronald Dworkin questions the limits of liberty. If actions have consequences then say pleasure and satiation don’t exist in a vacuum, but have their effects on others. It’s nice to think that humans can exist in a perpetual tabula rasa, but then the price to be paid would be a kind of collective amnesia in which remembrance was the province of rebels like Winston Smith of Orwell's l984.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Pornosophy: John Wayne Bobbitt at Colonus



"You Know the Lorena Bobbitt Story. But Not All of It," was the title of a piece that recently ran in The Times (1/30/19). The piece anticipated the recently released Amazon Prime documentary LorenaActually it’s rather amazing that the whole tale hadn’t become the subject of a major dramatic work even before this. You would think that a composer like John Adams might have tackled it for an opera. You might say that Sophocles' Oedipus deals with the things every guy is afraid of, killing his dad and sleeping with his mom. But what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt is really the nuts and bolts of what every guy fears—that someone will cut his dick off. Guys often refer to a tough boss or partner as busting their balls, but whatever you think of Bobbitt (who Lorena accused of rape and who would later be convicted of battery against another woman) this is worse.  Given an occasional shot of testosterone you can probably function OK without balls, but without a dick you’re in trouble, unless of course you have any interest in transitioning (though without a penis there isn’t going to be much to work with). Luckily the cops were able to find Bobbitt’s dick and through the wonders of modern medical science, it was reattached. In fact, Bobbitt went on to have a career as a porn star while Lorena became a feminist icon and hero to battered women. However, what if a dog had eaten it? Let's suppose Sophocles had written the play. It might be John Wayne Bobbitt at Colonus or Charlottesville and the subject is certainly worthy of a Greek chorus. Let’s say someone cut your penis off, wouldn’t you, to echo Arthur Miller’s words about Willy Loman cry, “attention must be paid.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Remembrance of Wild Strawberries Past



Imagine a schema in which you appeared at your present age as someone who's now senior to a mentor or other parental figure who you knew at the prime of your and their lives. In fact, there's nothing new under the sun, but imagination is the most advanced scientific invention ever created; there’s a time machine in your mind which will allow you to enter a room as the senior of someone who you once looked up to. “The Child is father of the Man,” wrote Wordsworth. You’ll want to take advantage of this portal since despite all the reports of parallel universes, string theory and multi-dimensional travel, it’s the closest you’re ever going to come to effectively transmigrating your soul. Here you get a chance to redo things. How you hated that pompous advisor in college or graduate school! How dismissive and self-involved they seemed as they enunciated their perfect locutions, preening themselves with their familiar vocabulary and paying little attention to your sputtering engine! Now you come back and see them from another point of view, as immature personalities suffering from the pains of growing up, even at the late stage of life where they’d already become noted figures in their field. In Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman imagined such a character, returning to the scene of his own early years, wizened, but no less pained by the limitations of his own character. The movie may not have been science fiction, but through the wonders of his cinematic genius, Bergman engineered his own prototypic voyage to the past.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Eye

"The False Mirror" by Rene Magritte (1928)
In England the problem is that everyone speaks with an English accent. So it’s more difficult to get the feeling Americans almost always have of being culturally inferior. The same thing applies to France.  Only it has to do with looks and sexuality. There are so many good looking people and especially women with perfect Gallic features, that a set of morphological characteristics that might turn heads on say Jones Beach doesn’t have the same effect in Paris or St. Tropez. It’s reminiscent of an old episode of The Twilight Zone, The Eye of the Beholder. A female patient is told that surgeons will operate one more time in order to remove her deformities. The operation turns out to be a failure, but when the camera pans up from the face of what's obviously a preternaturally beautiful woman, the audiences see the that the faces looking down on the operating table are hideous gargoyles. Now the state of affairs for French and English folk living with their alternating air of cultivation or attributes of beauty is not as dramatic, but the shock for either a patient or observer simply lies in the mundaneness of it all. In a place where lots of people speak the King’s English or have beautiful features, individuals have the burden of finding other ways of distinguishing themselves.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Climax


Gaspar Noe’s Climax is an example of a Dionysiac bacchanalia with the Pentheus myth thrown in for good luck. If The Living Theater gained its notoriety from Paradise Now, this is a kind of filmic Paradise Lost, minus the poetry. Known for classics of violence and eroticism like Irreversible (famous for its 9 minute rape scene), Enter the Void and Love (which provided an insider’s view of penetration), something went terribly wrong in Noe's current production, which features a troop of dancers who lose control when the punch at their after party is laced with LSD. Continuing the analogy with Greek theater, it’s at this point that the Furies take over with a pregnant dancer getting kicked and punched in the stomach and with the child of the company’s manager adding to the chorus of screaming as he piteously cries out from a locked electrical closet. Though there are several light moments including a Tarantino like exchange about the joys and pitfalls of analingus,  what follows is shrill even by the standards of say MedeaThe movie courts comparison to collective forms of drama not only in its themes of ecstasy and destruction, but also due to the fact that it lacks an iota of character development. Anarchy on film and the "derangement des sens” a la Rimbaud are naturally viable themes in any age, but Climax is as hermetic as it is disturbing. If you’re one of those people who has been flirting with taking low doses of LSD as a treatment for depression, you’re likely to have second thoughts after seeing Noe’s latest work.

Friday, March 1, 2019

No U-Turns

Tapco R3-4 High Intensity Prismatic Square Standard Traffic Sign
Life is long enough for most people to accommodate a certain amount of acceptances and rejections. People who are free-lance writers will remember the age of the SASE. The ominous self-addressed stamped envelope rarely if ever brought good news. Today, many magazines use a site called Submittable which allows writers to see the fate of their work on line. For others the experience of acceptance and rejection relates more to early romance and then college. After that they go on to careers in which the playing field is usually more level. But there's a certain thrill akin to gambling that one begins to miss when the old outlets dry up. Unless you're unfaithful in your marriage you're not going to experience the thrill of that first kiss or the disappointment of the slap in the face and ditto once your performance on this or that standardized test is evaluated. Writing is an interesting case actually. Since the literary world has become so moribund, there are less and less magazines in existence and the few that continue on more often than not appear in an on-line format which doesn’t pay much if anything for a writer’s work. The thrill of acceptance, when it does come, brings fewer rewards. In the  face of this some writers have begun to seek other outlets--for instance the emergency rooms of their local hospitals. They may even try to fob their work off as evidence of this or that kind of aberration. You might for instance send a poem with a dark theme to The Journal of Forensic Psychology and Psychology. There is also The Journal of Irreproducible Results that runs parodies of scientific papers; there is even an Ig Nobel prize awarded each year by another satiric magazine The Annals of Improbable Research. Economics changes culture and the dearth of outlets for writers' work has even led some eager beavers to try to make their work perform a dual function. For instance, remember the no U-Turns sign? Who knows but couldn't that have resulted from a poem anonymously submitted to the DOT?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Final Solution: R. Kelly and Climate Change


"Fake News” is Trump’s favorite refrain. But what about “Fake Weather.” Not to deny climate change, El Nino, the devastation produced by forest fires in California and flooding in the South, but weather has become an industry in itself. You have Accuweather competing with the Weather Channel and celebrity weather anchors like Al Roker on NBC and Lonnie Quinn and Elise Finch who are his counterparts on the local CBS station in New York. You can often find Lonnie Quinn shivering outside the CBS mobil weather center and one way or the other there's going to be drama in the offing. In the fierce battle for ratings, the curse of any weatherman or woman is mild weather with no chance of rain. An impending blizzard, a downpour, hurricane level winds and even hail make for good ratings. It’s the same paradigm that motivates the news. Sure everyone talks about peace and members of congress crossing the aisles to compromise, but such a state of affairs would put television news out of business. Remember "Gunga Din?" Now you have "Mueller Din," a low lying ambient feeling of institutionalized discord that’s something like the musak in one of those discount supermarkets. It’s terrible but the weatherman needs environmental catastrophes like their counterparts in local and national news require rapes, murders, kidnappings and the likes of an R. Kelly. The meteorologic equivalent of R. Kelly is a payday for anyone reporting on the weather.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Will You Answer This Brief Survey?



Undoubtedly you’ve called an airline, an insurance company or some utility and after you go through the prompts and are waiting to speak to a representative (if that is what you want to do), you hear the electronically generated voice asking “would you be willing to take a brief survey after this call?” If you're an average Alice or Jerry, you’re going to respond with an enthusiastic “no!” You’ve already been waiting and may even have been given a time slot which has already lapsed and having to answer a series of inane questions is an added indignity. Providers provide. You’re not supposed to help them. They’re there to help you. That’s what you’re paying for. What are they after? Do they really study these surveys? What if the representative I’m talking to has not been helpful? What if I have not found it easy to get information from the site? What if I give the lowest rating to the services that the company provides? What are they going to do? Stop everything and make changes right while I’m waiting on the phone? Are they going to dose the representative with a little electric shock as both a punishment and training procedure a la B.F. Skinner’s rat psychology? However, you can’t help but feel a bit guilty. Even though the sweet sounding request is made up of bytes of data that constitute, pure information generated by a robot, you can’t help but feel that your acid tone has has stung someone. It’s like the panhandler on the subway. You want to think of yourself as a generous and caring person but sometimes it’s just too much. It’s morning, you’re tired and you’ve got a headache since you haven’t slept and someone is in your face loudly giving their spiel about the disease they have or the fact that they haven’t eaten or that even a penny or a crust of bread will help (by the way you know that they will not be satisfied with either) when you barely have the wherewithal to put one foot in front of the other and all you want is to be allowed to crawl into your own little hole, your la la land until the shit hits the fan and you’re back at your desk with the phone calls, texts and e mails coming. The problem is, these electronically generated voices are much nicer than most people. Google Maps and Siri undoubtedly are more pleasant than your partner and if you make a wrong turn Google Maps isn’t going to call you an idiot. It will simply say something like “recalculating the route.” So you imagine the person to whom you have given such an unequivocal “no” as being dejected. You imagine them in the ether in which these voices reside and you imagine the equivalent of an unhappy expression, resignation or even depression on the mouth of a piece of data. You don’t like being turned down or talked to in this way and you’re sure they have feelings of some kind and don’t like it either. You even want to call back and revise your earlier response. You feel so guilty that you want to say “yes I will take the survey” or “yes I will take the survey if you answer my call” or “I’ll take your fucking survey if  you pick up the goddam horn already!”

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Treating Your Military-industrial Complex



Peace is intolerable. Otherwise mankind would have more of it. Benevolent despotism is the closest thing that most societies know when it comes to peace. Tito for instance was a forceful integrator of his country's warring ethno-religious factions. When he died, all hell broke loose and the Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians went at it. The collective memory of never forgotten historical transgressions resurfaced in places like Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Ancient sites that were the repository of never forgotten conflict again seethed as the embers of long simmering hatred reignited new conflagrations. The human race seems to need the adrenalin rush of hate and there are no shortage of leaders who carry messages of anger which act like a drug over seething mobs of desperados. In Weimar Germany it was the lumpenproletariat, aimless former soldiers and unemployed workers who were stirred up by Hitler’s broadsides and speeches. Tyrants provide wonderful antidotes, giving a sense of purpose or calling (beruf) to those suffering from self-hatred, boredom and depression. Client states like Syria and Yemen become the proxies in the larger battles between varying parties and religious sects. In fact, if there seems to be a choice between turmoil or peace homo sapiens ultimately choose the tribal or warrior approach in which varying constituencies find little or no identity with each other's desires and needs. When you think about it, there’s always some reason to hate thy neighbor. Loving him or her is a higher bar to jump.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Will Self-driving Cars Be Covered by Medicare?

A Waymo Self-Driving Car (photo: Grendelkhan)
What to do when your new car is six months old? Take it to a pediatrician naturally. Now that we're on the verge of having a first generation of self-driving cars, it's necessary to bring them to the kinds of specialists who are equipped to handle their condition. For instance, you'll probably want to take a self-driving car that’s having problems with fluids to a urologist. If your self-driving car is stalling or having trouble starting you’ll want to see a cardiologist and any trouble with the computer system will inevitably lead to neurology. Obviously if your self-driving vehicle gets into an accident you'll have it triaged in an emergency room and any body work will require a visit to an orthopedist. You may even want to arrange to get a full body scan of your self-driving car at the Mayo Clinic. You may throw up your hands and ask, “am I going to have to take my self-driving car to a dentist? Will my self-driving car require a therapist when it has to scratch its head due to traffic problems?” Pets are like people, but is the fact that cars have graduated to being independent entities which no longer require a driver or even destination, qualify them for Medicare instead of the collision coverage that most vehicles still command? Will problems with the systems of self-driving cars be covered under the Affordable Care Act? Even though self-driving cars will eliminate the human element and perhaps the chance for human error, it’s important to remember that there’s a price to be paid for independence. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Last Exit



Traffic is a wonderful metaphor. Remember Aretha Franklin's Freeway of Love? You cruise along and then you have bottlenecking. You speed forth like an ideologue as you come out of the midtown tunnel, but then have your head handed to you as you travel further into Queens where the highway meets turn-offs for the airports and the Grand Central Parkway. Then your hubris is likely to come back and you feel like the road is your oyster, not remembering that depending on the time of day you’re going to run into congestion at heavily populated areas beginning with Huntington at exit 49. In human development you have a similar series of signposts. There are the early years when every kid is getting a bat or bar mitzvah or confirmation. The marriages with their childbirths culminating in the demise of an earlier generation. You were zipping along, but your day is going to be interrupted by a spate of funerals which will inevitably interrupt your schedule of yoga and therapy appointments and/or trysts. Then for a while it seems like smooth sailing until you start to find that the troops are beginning to fall around you with the varying ailments that mark the passage from middle to old age. Which exit on the thruway is that? Surely one that’s closer to the end.Those hips and knees become like hazard signs, but now if you’ve successfully gotten this far, it’s likely to be clear sailing to the end.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

What to Shop for in a Therapist?


When you’re young you look up to parents, teachers, coaches and other authority figures as bearers of truth. Of course high on this list is the therapist. Once someone begins to pour his or her heart out to a therapist, there’s no way to prevent so-called transferential feelings which either do or don’t make the therapist the repository of unimpeachable truths—depending of course on what your childhood relationship with a parent was like. What’s disconcerting later in life is to realize that therapists and analysts are just people whose view of you is highly subjective and motivated by their own histories and feelings, ie the countertransference. Unless you're a Kantian who believes in right and wrong, you end up facing the  the tragic morass of subjectivity in which humans dwell. Remember Polish jokes? Well you might ask how many doctors does it take to screw in a light bulb or diagnose a neurosis? No two mental health practitioners are going to triage, for example, the nebulously suffering neurotic the same way or prescribe the same treatment or cure. If you’ve spent any time hanging around those in the mental health field you soon realize unsurprisingly that they’re not immune to the same delusions and symptomatology that their patients suffer from. In fact, a doctor who realizes that he or she's sick is likely to be in a better position to be aware of their own vulnerabilities where patients are concerned. So in the absence of ultimate knowledge, what is one to look for when shopping for psychiatrists and psychoanalysts and other healers? Ironically, it would seem to be a kind of seductiveness. A good practitioner is able to create a therapeutic bond. He or she may be a jerk who possesses a lot of deranged ideas, but if they're able to forge an alliance with the patient and metaphorically rescue the drowning swimmer without drowning themselves, they can be lifesavers. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Final Solution: Getting Into Stirrups

stirrup (photo: BLW)
There are two classes of people who're likely to be getting into stirrups. Cowboys or cowgirls who are mounting a horse and women having gynecological exams. But the stirrup has possibilities. Imagine the president of the United States showing his solidarity with women by giving his State of the Union in stirrups or even imagine him mounting a horse in place of a golf cart. Our modern governmental situation requires some degree of imagination in order to figure out how both houses of congress, the executive and the judiciary work can together instead of allowing things like government shutdowns to happen. What's interesting about the stirrup is the innuendo. The kind of stirrups that women or cowboys step into is a noun, but when used as a verb the word is synonymous with looking for trouble. Perhaps if politicians spent their time getting into stirrups they wouldn’t be able or even desirous of being so contentious and divisive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Culture of Technology




Das Reingold (set design by Josef Hoffman, photo: Victor Angerer)
There is at tendency to place technology and culture at two ends of the spectrum, in the way science and art have always been dichotomized. CP. Snow wrote a famous essay, “Two Cultures,” which was an attempt to bridge the gap between these two worlds. However today technology is so ubiquitous and omnipresent that it’s created it’s own culture. It’s no understatement to refer to the dominant esthetic of present times as a culture of technology. Certainly mainstream popular culture is a product of huge technological advances in the creation of computer generated sounds and images and good part of the content produced by Hollywood and distribution giants like Netflix is about technology itself. In Spike Jonze's Her, for instance, a character (Joaquin  Phoenix) falls in love with an electronically generated artificially intelligent voice. The beauty of such a concept is that many viewers will immediately identify with the situation of the character. It’s easy to invidiously compare one’s significant other, who’s perpetually annoyed by your wrong turns, to the soothing feminine voice of an electronic direction finder simply iterating “route recalculating” when you make a mistake. Beyond cinema, there’s electronic music and Kindle and sites like Second Life which bring vicarious experience perilously close to real life. The “willing suspension of disbelief” was a term originally coined by Coleridge in the l9th century, but with ever more powerful microprocessors "will" doesn’t even come into the picture. The participant in many interactive experiences is swept up by a tsunami of affect before he or she even has a choice. Gesamtkunstwerk was often used to refer to Wagnerian opera, but technology is producing it's own light shows that literally kidnap the senses.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Final Solution: State of Emergency


One of the most disconcerting parts of Trump’s press conference on Friday in which he announced he would declare a state of emergency, was the evenhandedness of the language. Teams of negotiators were working with the Chinese to hammer out a trade agreement. Trump appeared to like President Xi and his policy towards drug dealers ("we give death penalty to people who sell drugs," he said apparently trying to give a flavor for the Xi's accent). The summit with the North Koreans was coming up and great progress was being made. He boasted of a "good relationship" with Chairman Kim, different from the one his predecessors had before. Obama was according to Trump a hair’s breath away from going to war with North Korea. And as for the state of emergency. There had been lots of states of emergencies. It was no big deal. Obama even declared a state of emergency against the cartels and some of the language of that state emergency was going to be used in current efforts against drug lords. Crime was increasing on the border (this Trump repeated several times in response to reporters who pointed out that statistics didn’t bear this out). Trump did refer to “fake news” and CNN, but the ad hominum attacks and outrageous remarks were at a minimum. One was reminded of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” The speech was procrustean in a different way than other Trump fiats. It was like a silent steamroller. Though it was far less outrageous and entertaining, whoever advised Trump on his performance was doing a good job. The insecure madman had become dangerously confident, displaying all the un self-questioning characteristics of a common- place tyrant. The only real state of emergency would be for the democrats who were trying to unseat him in 2020. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Stark's Crowd

cashier's desk Stark's Restaurant (Gottscho-Schliesner, Inc., photographer, Library of Congress)
Back in the 60’s there was a restaurant called Stark’s located on the Southeast corner of Madison and 78th. It was the kind of place that attracted well-to-do housewives at lunch and in the evenings was a hangout low achievers, who attended  private school and were mostly interested in superficial things like money and clothes. It’s safe to say that few kids who hung out at Stark’s amounted to much (though there were undoubtedly exceptions) and the restaurant wasn’t any help. It offered the French fries and other goodies that kids liked in the context of elegant and obsequious service, on the part of the staff. You might have termed these kids the fast crowd, but they were more indolent than rebellious or precociously sexual and most of the girls and guys would do a good job in preserving their virginity even into the early years of their loveless marriages. It would be nice to say that the Upper East Side was a different place back in that era, but actually it was the same  as it is today, quiet at night and forbidding, with the gates to the local white brick palaces firmly guarded by doormen whose uniforms were often comprised of white gloves and mourning jackets. Most of the kids who went to Starks were mini spoiled adults by the time they were 15. Stark's was the perfect training ground for a life of entitlement. While these scions of wealth hadn’t earned any money or distinguished themselves in any way, they displayed all the xenophobia and social status of a landed class. The heavily made up young girls had already spent a good part of their lives at their local HD (hairdresser) and probably couldn’t remember seeing what their nails looked like in their natural unmanicured state. The boys, who tended not to go out for teams or sports, spoke with an air of avuncular certainty, with most of their observations based on experiences which they’d neither had nor were likely to have. Most of the Stark’s crowd would barely make it through college (the gentlemen's "C" was fashionable in those days) and go on to spend the rest of their lives playing golf in Westchester.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"As If Personality Disorder" and "Invisibility Neurosis"


cover first edition, The Metamorphosis
You don’t have to be paranoid to believe someone is following and you don’t have to be suffering from the exotic cocktail of “as if personality disorder" and "invisibility neurosis" to feel you’re as unimportant as a bot. But what lies at the heart of this feeling of being a total excrescence whose every endeavor pales in importance compared to literally anything including worms, who crawl imperviously along the ground, with nary a care or thought, worms which display all the insouciance of an Edwardian dandy and who're truly slick and shiny in comparison to your nervous trembling self? Waiting for the other shoe to drop barely captures the existence of the all-knowing pessimist for whom life is a self-fulfilling prophecy and in this regard a perpetual embarrassment. Let’s take the hero of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a nice Jewish kid who gets turned into an insect. It's a wonderful conceit and metaphor for entrapment. However, first and foremost it describes a whole sub species of mankind who in fact regard themselves as more lowly than rodents. Rodents at the very least are full of guile and often hard to trick. "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly; I don’t know why she swallowed the fly—I guess she’ll die,” goes the limerick. Termites, water bugs, the brilliant ant, bees and their hive minds! How can a lumbering mass of bones and flesh, as heavy handed as it is heavy-headed with so-called consciousness, compete?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Such Good Friends



Friendship is a kind of therapeutic bond and like with a therapist a friend is the repository of thoughts, memories and intimacies that they take with them to the grave. A good therapist is capable of producing the conditions, of greasing the wheels or creating a kind of highway that facilitates the communication of emotion. A therapist is a surrogate friend and the transferences that go on in therapy create the illusion of friendship and most often a kind of parenting, if the transference is particularly parental, which it usually is. But you can easily look at friendships as mini therapeutic interventions and thus conceive of average human beings whether they're sharing deep confidences or not as participating in therapy on a mass scale depending, of course, on the number and intensity of friendships that comprise a human being's social life. There are therapists who delve deeply into the past and those of the cognitive variety who are more interested in behavior, but it essentially doesn’t matter. Whether or not you're the kind of patient who tells everything to his therapist, analyst, psychiatrist or spiritual advisor or holds things tightly to the vest is of less concern than the existence of the relationship whose manifest content itself is charged with meaning. Explicit  remembrances which are often distorted by drives and intentions (a la Freud’s repudiation of the seduction theory) may turn out to be less revelatory than the heart to heart relationship that occurs between friends and therapists and between whom an invisible umbilical chord often betokens both regeneration and rebirth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Second Life?


It’s hard but not impossible to be a hermit in our digital age. If you don’t get them, they’ll get you. That's to say the internet of everything records your comings and goings no matter how much you may want to keep to your self. You don’t need an actual security camera, many devices actually are built to track patterns of consumption and ambulation. A decade ago a hermit could simply pay cash and innocently drive through a toll booth emerging no worse for the wear. Now you can’t pay if you want to and if your easy pass is not being recorded, say you don’t have one, your license surely will be. Someone should write a new version of l984 in which the great grandchild of Winston Smith is trying to escape from the dragnet of technology. In fact, it’s astonishing how prescient Orwell was in the first go round. But imagine a world where virtual reality is competitive and people really have to decide if they prefer to live a totally digitized cyberspace existence over life in the natural world with increasing fires and floods due to global warming. In the futuristic saga perhaps the body will be the first thing to go with the promise of immortality in cyberspace providing competition to materialized existence. After all Second Life is not only a game but it’s also a functioning society. Such a universe might be free of conflagration though freedom itself would be a term that had little or no meaning to the extent that thought would be comprised of mind games produced by the manufacturer.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Love and Bureaucracy



Bureaucracy creates its own architecture which Kafka famously memorialized in novels like The Trial and especially The CastleRussia has always been famous for its labyrinthine bureaucracies which often overlapped with the notion of the Gulag a la Solzhenitsyn and before him Gogol whose Overcoat raises the notion of the nameless individual (in the form of Akaky Akakievich, the feckless civil servant) to an almost religious level. Vittorio De Sica took on a similar theme in Bicycle Thieves which dramatized the plight of a pair of lost souls, a father and son in post-war Rome. The IRS is a famous internecine bureaucracy as is New York's DMV, but Social Security is more benign in that you actually interface with individuals who are trying to help when you're claiming benefits or doing something simple like get a card. The experience of going to the Social Security office in Manhattan which is located on William Street in the financial district something akin to waiting on line for a teller in a bank, therapy with a little bit of confession thrown in.You’re just another number, but once you get up to the glass partition through which you engage an agent, you find real people with a host of different personalities and ethnic backgrounds.The variety of the melting pot is proudly on display. You're checked in by someone of Indian or Pakistani descent and find yourself conversing about your lost card with another agent who has a Czech accent. Finally, you may find yourself discussing benefits with someone else, who like a shrink, is trying to wake you up to reality. Remember the character played by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Friday, February 8, 2019

Millenarian Consumerism




There’s a cosmopolitanism that unites people from many different societies and a hope that emanates from it. Modernism itself would be an amalgamating factor producing a democratic and even liberal world order. Cultures would be unified by the devices they employed and tribalism would dissipate. It makes a lot of sense. Sophistication is itself a  form of liberation since it depends so much on the idea of self-invention; religious divides could be bridged by compelling forms of entertainment like rock music which for some are a religion (producing its own form of ecstatic transformation) in itself. There’s no doubt that enormously popular rock stars and groups like The Beatles, The Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen have had an almost biblical appeal creating followings who journeyed to varying meccas in the Adamic period of the love generation. Indeed there was Perestroika and the Berlin wall eventually came down. But what happened? China may have become the world’s largest market for iPhones, but the Chinese leadership has been successful in repressing and jailing human rights activists since Tiananmen Square and Imperial Russia and the dark shadow of irredentism is again looming over Eastern Europe. Nike sneakers, Netflicks and Amazon all are evidence of an international market dictating its own overarching uniformity. However, there has always been a Faustian bargain implicit in the notion of a millenarian consumerism. Freedom could literally be purchased, but at what price? Will the collective unconscious of individual cultures, sometimes taking form of an anachronistic fundamentalism, ultimately rise up against the threat homogenization and the loss of historic identity?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The MacArthur Non-Genius Grant



The MacArthur Foundation is currently accepting applications for its non-genius grants. The MacArthur non-genius grant will be awarded to figures in the arts and sciences who have failed to make exceptional contributions to their fields. All qualified applicants are encouraged to apply. Writers who have experienced long periods of  blockage will be evaluated solely on the basis of potential. If you draw or paint portraits at a street fair, you should definitely send slides of your work and scientists who are working on projects which will not demonstrably affect the quality of human life should submit any papers or studies which will help the committee determine their credentials. The MacArthur non-genius grants will provide an award of $625 paid over 5 years, which is an increase over the $500 originally offered. That’s $125 bucks! Recipients of MacArthur non-genius grants will not be required to attend any gatherings to celebrate their award, nor will they have to deal with either the press or public since MacArthur non-genius grants will not be announced. Finally a MacArthur for the average Joe!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt



Remember the old Landmark Books you lapped up as a kid like Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White HouseNow adults are getting to read their favorite intellectual heroes in illustrated bios. Of course the idea of taking serious subject matter and portraying it in comic book or graphic novel form began with Art Spiegelman’s Maus. However, this latest trend suggests all kinds of unique possibilities for turning profundity into the little cartoon bubbles. Ann Frank would be a good starter and then there's Simone Weil and naturally Sylvia Plath. Of tragic male figures why not start with the tormented Paul Celan, whose poetry dealt with the Holocaust.  Then if you’re looking to cruise the world of philosophy, how about Wittgenstein sitting cross-legged with his fellow Cambridge dons and musing “that whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent,” the final precept of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? But lo you may find yourself beaten to the punch by a recent release. “Hannah Arendt was obsessed with the dangers of thoughtlessness…” writes Becca Rothfeld in her TLS review (“Making a mess, How to turn a thinker into a caricature,” 1/4/19) “How would Arendt feel, then, about the facile lionization she faces in The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, a graphic biography by the cartoonist Ken Krimstein?” Well one thing's for sure, Krimstein may be criticized for trivializing, but no one will dare to call him banal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Amos Oz on Shakespeare and Chekhov


In his Washington Post obit of Amos Oz ("Amos Oz, Israel author who wrote of striving and struggle, dies at 79,"12/28/18), Matt Schudel quotes the Israeli author thusly, “At the end of Shakespeare the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there’s a measure of justice hovering high above. A Chekhovian tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed—indeed, absolutely shattered, but still alive.” It’s a brilliant bit of literary criticism which contains the wistful hope that history would catch up with culture. Great sea shifts occur in human personality and often these come with great pain. But while certain civilizations often have the leisure to deal with intra-psychic trauma, there are still places on earth like Yemen for instance where "soul murder," the phrase coined by the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold to describe the childhood emotional deprivation which Chekhov, for instance, endured, doesn’t even have time to occur. The heartbreaking photos of starving children are a testament to the fact that the Cambodian killing fields have only spread virally to another venue. The country in which Oz was born and in whose language he wrote, is a living demonstration of the contrarieties of this individual and social paradigm. Indeed in modern Israel tortured personalities like those of Oz himself find themselves mitigating between the personal and political on a daily basis.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Image Book


In The Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard cites Brecht saying “Only a fragment carries the mark of authenticity.” The movie does to the history of cinema what the Tower of Babel did to language and it's the perfect complement to his Goodbye to Language (2014). The late work of artists can often represent an act of transcendence and here meaning itself is under attack. Not that the tidbits which makes up this edit or cut, which is certainly not a coherent narrative, don’t have their subliminal effect. Godard has always been a fetishist and there are scenes of analingus and naked women on leashes that fall under the rubric of "porn," a word that actually appears in the credits. And it wouldn’t be without interest to do an fMRI of moviegoers to see what part of the brain is being affected by the alternating scenes of sexuality, violence and scholarship. Is Godard alluding to Conrad when he introduces Under Western Eyes more than once or tipping his hat to Edward Said’s Orientalism when he cities Alexander Dumas’s L’Arabie Heureuse? What compendium of film imagery would be complete without L’Atalante and the famous scene of Michel Simon turning the record? One can’t but throw one’s hands up, displaying the old-fashioned primitive response that ingenues once showed for abstract expressionism. The only difference here is that your two-year-old couldn’t pull this off, since he or she wouldn’t have access to all the citations.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Going For It








In an essay on Francis Fukuyamas’s The Demand For Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture (“The Identity Illusion," The New York Review of Books, 1/17/19), Stephen Holmes invokes Fukuyama’s “distinction between Erlebnis (subjectively lived experience that is incommunicable to others) and Erfahrung (objective and shared experience on which scientific experiments are based)." Fukuyama deploys the  dichotomy to explore a state of extreme individualism that fractures the social order. But it might also be applied in discussing the romantic concept of the artist described by Ibsen in The Master Builder in terms of the pull between visionary ambition and reality. The mythology of the artist as Ubermensch or Uberfrau defying the mores of society as he or she strives for greatness was almost the mantra of abstract expressionism. The literary world is no less immune. Doris Lessing left two of her  children in Rhodesia, journeying to London to become a famous novelist. And on an anecdotal basis it’s not hard to recount the story of those ill-fated souls, victims of a kind of later-day Bovarysm, who give up their quotidian lives to attain the dream of happiness and fulfillment. Many of these creatures are parodies who leave a path of destruction in their wake. The obverse of striving is self-hatred and this last is what many would be creatives suffer from in their recusal from the so-called norms of everyday life. Ah genius! Those attempting to invoke pragmatism run the risk of sounding like the avuncular family friend in The Graduate who recommends “plastics.”  But it would be interesting to get the statistics on who is actually happier. Those who go for it, or those who never go after their dreams?