Friday, September 20, 2019

Have You Gotten Your Flu Shot?

Sickness is like science fiction. Stephen King’s The Stand, uses a flu epidemic to create a horror story and Susan Sontag’s famous essay is “Illness As Metaphor.” You’re placed into an alternate universe. Even something minor like a head cold creates at least one degree of separation from the everyday world in which others go about their business in a way that you're not able. It gets worse if you really come down with something and end up looking enviously out your window at passersby who're perfectly capable of going about their business unimpeded by physical handicaps. Those people born with congenital conditions never know what it feels like to live a so-called normal life in which one has full use of one's faculties. The average person takes his or her ability to see, hear or smell for granted but there are those who inhabit an interior universe in which stimulae from the outside world are dramatically limited. If you've never known another life, then in essence you may not feel like you’re missing anything. It’s those who experience the kinds of physical deterioration that results in the inability to ambulate or even cognate who will find they have begun a different kind of a journey. Journalist Jean Dominique-Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly described the locked-in syndrome that derived from a massive stroke. The NYU historian Tony Judt wrote three books after he was diagnosed with ALS while contributing essays about his condition to The New York Review of Books.  Stephen Hawking who also suffered from ALS, wrote books like A Brief History of Time under the most challenging of conditions, in the end using cheek muscle to activate a sensor. He developed a rich inner world that had a correspondingly powerful grasp of the cosmos. Despite being limited he was, at least from the theoretical point of view, a human telescope, his mind allowing him access to perceptions about the nature of the multiverse not available to people who suffered from none of the disabilities he dealt with. In his many books the neurologist Oliver Sacks demonstrated how patients with severe neurological disorders often compensated for their losses—becoming in essence like Spock in Star Trek, brilliant though sometimes robotic-sounding personalities with extrasensory perception.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Oedipus, Complex

Imagining different endings can be a dangerous thing. That’s what Philip K. Dick did The Man in the High Castle, Philip Roth in The Plot Against America and most recently Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The fantasy may be benevolent or invidious but it makes you start to think that history can be rewound like a reel of old-fashioned celluloid film. If only you had  gone by your gut instinct and forgot about the supermarket, you wouldn’t have had the fender bender, or the argument with your girlfriend or boyfriend that was the beginning of the end. You wouldn’t have seen or heard something or become the repository of knowlege you would rather not have been privy to. Reimagining history gives the impression that the past is somehow labile, manageable and prone to damage control. The fact is that nothing is ever rewound.  Nothing is ever rewritten. Nothing ever goes away. You can’t nip happenstance in the bud. Coitus interruptus is actually a misnomer since it implies that a sexual act has not occurred; in fact, human action is a little like premature ejaculation to the extent that it, in fact, reveals its effects before they've sometimes even occurred. It’s like some incurable congenital ailment which can’t, like diabetes or alcoholism, go into remission. Poor Oedipus he spends his whole life trying to a avoid the prophecy of the oracle and ends up bringing about the very thing he's trying to avoid.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Little Night Music?

Certain religions look at entertainment as something approaching sin. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images and many faiths proscribe alcohol. The cult of Dionysius would be not find a home in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand The Living Theater’s Paradise Now could be viewed as a contemporary counteraction to Milton's Paradise Lost. What's Courbet’s “The Origin of the World," but a recollection of the lost pleasures of the unconditional love of the universe. Hedonism or austerity are the antipodes of artistic endeavor with the reality of many creative works falling somewhere in between. Broadway musicals tend to provide escapist fare, but many theatergoers who revel in My Fair Lady forget that the musical is based on a think piece about the relationship between artists and their subjects. If you recall in the original myth on which the play is based Pygmalion falls for his creation, Galatea. My Fair Lady and Pygmalion attract different audiences just like A Little Night Music might not have had the same appeal to viewers of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the film from which the Broadway musical was adapted. What's the pleasure of disturbing works like Bergman's Persona or Fanny and Alexander, or Othello and Hamlet for that matter? Catharsis would naturally be Aristotle’s answer. Hamartia (the tragic flaw) and anagnorisis (the recognition) were all part of classic Greek tragedy, but is the net result edifying or ultimately just entertaining? Ars longa, vita brevis said Hippocrates.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Troubled Automaker?

Nissan Global Headquarters in Yokohama  (photo: TTTNIS)
Recently The Times referred to Nissan as a “troubled automaker.”  ("Nissan of Japan Discloses a New Recall, Adding to Its Problems," NYT, 6/2719). And business journals regularly point to "ailing companies." It won’t be long before you find the range of illnesses broadening with respect to industry. Imagine a neurosthenic appliance chain (they should be by the way with Amazon totally gobbling up the retail market), a hyperactive technology company with overly precocious apps and say a manufacturer of tractors like Caterpiller which suffers from an eating disorder to the extent that it chews up everything in its path. Will "schizoaffective disorder" be employed when referring to certain companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry? The pathetic fallacy is a literary device whereby nature reflects emotions, but industry, usually thought to be a contrivance of man, is now taking on a life of its own. Many companies are, in fact, run by robots or people who behave like them and often the decisions they make can’t really be attributed to a human factor. So it does seem like a cheap way out to start making entities rather than people the repository of seemingly human frailties, but that’s what happens when you’re dealing with a powerful machine. Like a gifted person, it too can face challenges.   

Monday, September 16, 2019

Beauty Contest

Michelangelo's "David" (photo: Jorg Bittner Unna)
Beauty's intimidating and a rebuke to the person who feels they're ugly, or at least has unbeauteous thoughts. It’s like the kid from childhood who was always faster and smarter than you and lo ended up on the top of the totem pole, in life, with the unapproachable wife, husband or lover and the secretary who’s practiced in saying “He or she's in a meeting. Can he or she get back to you?” You know the pert sounding voice behind the impassive personality of an executive assistant whose own glamorous existence you can’t even begin to fathom. Now think instead about a cess pool of industrial sludge, one of those greenish residues that forms a canal in industry city, where smoke stacks emit precociously advanced toxic substances into the sodden smog-filled atmosphere—a whore on his or her last legs whose lined face and dark deep set eyes record the depredations of their clientele. This is hardly the water lapping up against the edges of the sylvan sand esoteric Caribbean retreat, with its exclusively pristine harbor designed shallowly enough to keep away the hordes of cruise boats. What’s worse is that beauty hogs the show. It demands constant admiration. What more are you going to do in the face of a beautiful vista or landscape than to praise it? Yes beauty is like that Apollonian or Orphic statue that everyone stares at with perfunctory obeisance.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Of Mice and Men

Size doesn’t matter when it comes to having a big heart, but can an ant or an amoeba have a soul? Even animal lovers who fawn and fret over their dogs and become heartbroken at the death of a  beloved cat, take a totally prejudiced attitude towards mice who, as as rodents, some of the lowliest and most despised creatures in the great chain of being, don’t have equal rights. It’s unlikely that you’re going to see anyone in tears over the death of a rat, which is a name given to a snitch. Yes, even a lover of all creatures big and small hates to see an infestation of ants and will easily squash the colonies that pour out of the cracks of the flagstone pathway leading from the house to the driveway. But if worms have no souls, why should humans? Could it be that once the last breath is taken, the great work that nature conspired to make culminating in vaunted consciousness is dead as a doornail and in fact no better than the lowly mouse whose untimely end is signaled by the snapping of a trap. Yes, the mouse was stupid enough to eat the cheese, just as an unthinking human texting on his or her iPhone inadvertently walks in front of a car and boom, it’s curtains! Nice to think the light flickering in the house of a deceased person is conveying a message, but it’s more likely that the socket in which the lamp is plugged requires a surge protector. Charlotte's Web is an example of anthropomorphized vermin and Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself turned into an insect, but do any them, or the humans they were modelled on or derived from, have souls?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Pornsophy: Nihilism

Peter Kropotkin (c. 1900)
There are kinds of porn that act like porn but aren’t porn per se to the extent that there is no sex or naked bodies. If the end result of porn is an obliterative stimulation that allows an instantaneous escape from reality, nihilism can function as a form of pornography since it immediately steels the personality into a euphoric state of uncaringness. Nothing matters, everything is shit or as Hamlet says, “by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Of course, negativity has a subsidiary function as a form of exorcism or emetic. You have to get the poison out to make room for the elixir of hope. “When he himself might his quietus make /With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear…” Hamlet continues. Bazarov was Turgenev’s famously negative character in Fathers and Sons and then there’s Chekhov’s Solyony in The Three Sisters whose negativity results in the death of the Baron, in a meaningless duel. The Russians were experts at nihilism and revolutionary anarchists like Kropotkin provided the ideologies for literary mouthpieces. But underneath can it be said that like porn, extreme negativity ultimately entails a search for enlightenment?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Thinking and Being

"The world is all that is the case" is the first proposition of Wittgenstein’s TractatusIn her review of Irad Kimhi’s Thinking and Being ("True or False," TLS, 8/16/19). Rose Ryan Flinn deals with a rather heady notion, even for a discipline devoted to thought.  Flinn points out that the German logician Frege’s work is the basis of current analytic thinking and it's his theories that have previously been brought to bear on the refutation of Parmenides’ notion “that thinking falsely is unintelligible.” She remarks, “Specifically, Parmenides' puzzle appears to call for Frege’s notion of a ‘proposition’, which holds the promise of rendering falsehood intelligible…Propositions thereby comprise a veil of intermediaries that stand between thinkers and the world, and which are what they are independently of how the world is configured.”  Flinn’s rendition of Kimhi’s critique of Frege, which follows in the review, leads to an almost nihilistic sounding conclusion. “To put it succinctly: if propositions needn’t be true, it’s unclear how they can be true; and if propositions don’t make claims,  it's unclear how they can be claims.” You may be wondering, what's this all about? Is it a little like the notion that a man’s home is his castle and that thinking occupies its own province apart from so-called reality? Whether you get the idea, in the end, may be besides the point. Simply sit back and enjoy the portentous sounding title of Kimhi’s book which competes handily with the consequentialist Derek Parfit’s pithy sounding Reasons and Persons.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Final Solution: U.S. Bars Refugees

Demonstration in front of Trump International Hotel Washington D.C (photo Ted Eytan)
"Trump Administration Considers a Drastic Cut in Number of Refugees Allowed to Enter U.S.,was the headline in the online edition of The Times, (NYT, 9/6/19). Actually, the version in the print edition which came out the next day was more unforgiving, “U.S. Discusses A Plan Barring Most Refugees,” NYT9/7/19. “The White House is considering a plan that would keep most refugees who are fleeing war, persecution and famine out of the United States, significantly cutting back a decades-old program…” began the article. There have always been parodies of The Times and one’s first response is to regard this as some kind of journalistic spoof, the kind of thing that’s found in The OnionHow much worse can it get? Transgender bathroom rights are repealed, regulations on mercury emissions are rescinded along with the protection of endangered species. You become numb and eventually it seems possible that you could pick up the newspaper and find a story about the Trump administration allowing selective lynching in areas where there are law enforcement shortages, that President Trump cancelled high-level talks with Boris Johnson when England refused to sell him Scotland, that trade talks with China will be held at newly created Trump Hotel and Casino in Pyongyang, that the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral will become the Trump Real Estate Space Center (whose motto is “if you’re looking for space in outer space, we got it!”) that the name of the earth will be changed to Trumposphere, that after next week's mass shooting, the president will reassure the nation he’ll speak to Mitch McConnell about it and that the White House will be renamed The House of Trump after 2020 when the country becomes a monarchy. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Mr. Klein

At the beginning of Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein  (1976), currently in revival at Film Forum, the Jewishness of a woman’s identity is being ascertained. The concentration camps are immediately invoked, even though the exam takes place in a Parisian doctor’s office. She’s stripped naked. Her mouth is pried open along with her nostrils. However, there’s a subtlety even in this garish scene. As she dresses and prepares to leave, she asks about payment. Vichy France was complicit and she’s a metaphor for the French who will pay the price to maintain their racial purity. This perverse notion immediately appears in the second scene of the film. Alain Delon plays Robert Klein an art dealer who’s profiting on the misfortunes of Jews who are forced to sell their paintings at bargain prices in order to raise money for their escape (how prescient Losey was in dealing with the subject of the wartime exploitation of Jewish collectors!) The art objects need to be evaluated, but Klein, is a non-Jew whose status is compromised by his name. The fact that in his haggling he himself represents the caricature of a Jew presented in a later cabaret scene underscores the labile nature of the nomenclature. Unresolved mysteries like that of the cell operated by the Jewish aristocrat (Jeanne Moreau) proliferate in an often needlessly reticulated way. However, the movie is ultimately an elaborate essay on identity (it's significant that the camera is continually panning as if looking for something). Losey’s earlier film The Servant (l963) famously used a convex mirror as the image in which Dirk Bogart gazed at his own apparition. The switching of roles, in that case between master and servant, is a device that’s employed throughout Mr. Klein with Losey's central figure eventually finding himself a victim of the very system in which he once reveled and profited. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything

At the beginning of the Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything exhibit at the Jewish Museum (“There’s a crack in everything...That’s how the light gets in” is how the lyric runs), it’s pointed out that the songwriter and poet got his love of suits from his father, Nathan Bernard Cohen, who owned Freedman’s, a clothing store and his love of music from his Lithuanian-born mother, Martha Klonitsky-Kline, the daughter of a Talmudic scholar. His father died when Cohen was nine and it is one of the many reasons for this complex personality’s life-long battle with depression. Finding his muse as a writer of novels like Beautiful Heroes (1966), iconic songs like “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Anthem,” and an extensive body of poems are some of his many self-interventions. Cohen recused himself for five years, living the cloistered existence of a Zen monk. A deep connection to his Jewish upbringing also provided spiritual sustenance. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were part of the picture but as Cohen once said, he didn't want "to create ashes instead of fire." On the subject of making gold out of dross Cohen commented: “If you can sell your anguish you are doing one the very best possible things you can do with anguish” and he talked of returning to his hometown of Montreal “to renew his neurotic affiliations.” How self-consciously imperfect and refreshingly human are these and other similarly off-color pronunciamentos in the videos that infuse the exhibit. In terms of self-promotion, Beautiful Heroes (1966), his second novel, was actually a succes de scandale and received a good drubbing in the press for its graphic sex. It’s interesting to note that another Montreal Jew, Mordecai Richler, reminiscent of Philip Roth in his mix of antic humor and groundbreaking sexuality was making his mark as a provocateur at about the same time. “You Want It Darker” Cohen’s last album was released on October 21, 2016 and he died 19 days later. The choir of the orthodox Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Westmount (a suburb of Montreal), which Cohen attended when he was growing up, were part of the album which the curators describe as the singer’s recitation of his own kaddish.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Monetary Man

Money is a curious invention since it’s partly an abstraction. The evolution of currencies culminating in government banks and institutions like the Bretton Woods agreement all describe a world that has two or more degrees of separation from the everyday back and forth that characterized society before the invention of coins and bills. Of course the notion of exchange itself represented a significant bit of progress that may have attended the development of prehensile creatures who were in turn capable of tool making. One’s neighbor was no longer potential prey but actually a source of useful items—something that recent proponents of tribal politics need to be reminded of (along with the notion of altruistically based "gift economies"). Money is a little like a secondary sex characteristic, the external manifestation of an inner drive, the phenomenological representation of the noumenal essence. There are some people who are like dogs in estrus. They’re hormonally never satisfied and are constantly seeking ever larger pots of gold like the great seducers and temptresses of history. They create great monuments which are based on their ability to manipulate what's essentially an abstraction. George Soros for example has made at least a part of his fortune through currency speculation. For others money like sex is a constant source of longing either because they don’t have any or enough. Money is also the title of a l984 novel by Martin Amis.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Are you tired of hearing about what someone ate last night for dinner or how much fun they had at Six Parks Great Adventure? Are you uninterested in whether a geezer you barely know went to a yoga class they considered “good” or found a shoemaker who puts old-fashioned taps on heels? Are you sick of hearing people lionizing their partners, lovers or parents or pointing out the latest presidential gaffe or piece of misinformation? Are you having trouble identifying with the conspicuous ostentatious and perseverative displays of contentment at human existence? Then you may discover the joys of “unfriending”—a process which unlocks a whole new world of possibilities? One by one you will be able to eliminate people until you have no friends on Facebook and there’s only you. Remember “Esse est percipi,” “to be means to be perceived,” the famous Bishop Berkeley quotation which appears at the beginning of Beckett’s Film (1965)? The movie is an essay on the surgical removal of the ways and means by which the self can be mirrored. Resign from Facebook and rent Film or Ross Lipman's brilliant film about the making of Film, Not Film (2015).

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Final Solution: Alex Honnold For President

Stories of transcendence are ultimately predicated on the notion of a limit. Circumstances mitigate against an individual discovering any kind of respite from a wall that interposes itself between desire and reality. Short of coming back from the dead, there’s no doubt that people accomplish things that defy explanation. It happens when the least favored person, or dark horse, wins. In the past election, Donald Trump started off as a longshot and then rode to victory on the tsunami of populism that struck the United States and Europe at about the same time. The intervention of the Russians in the election didn’t hurt either. Was it a miracle that someone like Trump got elected, or simply a historical phenomenon that had nothing to do with a politician's solitary will? It’s fun to believe in super heroes or villains, to entertain the notion that Christ walked on water and to give credence to the idea that this or that individual is suddenly possessed of superhuman traits that mysteriously facilitate the performance of other-worldly deeds. It still makes no sense that Houdini survived for 90 minutes after being submerged in an air-tight cell. The stories of climbers like Alain Robert, “the human spider-man” or Alex Honnold whose ascent of El Capitan without ropes was documented in Free Solo belie the concept of limits. Perhaps someone will one day actually fly, or arise from the morass of Democratic politics to triumph against the odds in 2020?

Monday, September 2, 2019

Pornosophy: Nostaglie de la Boue

Pornography can be an addiction, but if you’re just a consumer of porn you may find your sensibility evolving from the lurid to the nostalgic. The current culture’s fascination with youth, in which Brazilian waxing caters to pedophiliac fantasy runs into a collision course with the pornography produced in the 70’s (when Playboy first broke the taboo on full frontal nudity). The case of Jeffrey Epstein who created an elaborate supply network of underaged girls epitomizes the metrosexual fascination with the Barbie Doll. The 70s and 80s were the era of hirsute women and men, with a large Venus mound having the same allure as the large penis or package of the well-hung male. Today, women in porn films are almost castrated, denuded as they are of the dramatic topiaries and hedgerows that protected the so-called private parts. Narrative is another element that may create a nostalgia for the porn of the past. Sites like Tinder (the name sounds like a tenderizer), have created a literal meat market where the process of seduction and attraction has been boiled down to the lowest common denominator. However, if the genitalia has been streamlined so has the nature of personality. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the part is taken for the whole and sometimes the leads in today’s X-rated films seem to be well-shaved body parts. There are no stories anymore, just gang bangs and facials and golden showers. Glory- hole loops with anonymous mouths behind partitions create a longing for the Behind the Green Doors of yesteryear which exhibited comparatively fulsome story lines. It's significant that the title of a famous porn classic became the soubriquet for the person who blew the whistle on one of the great scandals of American politics.