Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Final Solution: The Rest Is Silence



This is not my day might be your response during one of those perfect storms that are occurring regularly considering the comorbidities of coronavirus and racial and economic inequality.  But swinging your legs off the side of the bed and declaring, this is going to be my day won't change anything. You can’t will away the weather and tropical storms have been particularly precocious this year, starting in July on the East Coast when they usually arrive in August or September. A positive attitude based on a blindness to reality is nothing more than a delusion. It would be hard to imagine victims of a nuclear attack like Hiroshima or the firebombing of Dresden taking a positive attitude. An unwarranted positive attitude is a caffeine high. For a moment you feel better, then you need another gulp until by the end of a few hours you have one of those acid stomachs that comes from drinking too much coffee. How to mitigate a complete disaster? It’s unanswerable. Little by little the survivors pick themselves up by their boot straps and begin to help  each other. And as Hamlet says, “the rest is silence.” 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Final Solution: Self-Portrait



 Rembrandt Self-Portrait (1660), The Met
Everyone naturally wishes the current worldwide pandemic would be over with. You can probably imagine the daydreaming that must be going on about some future time of egress. When will you be able to see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch  at The Rijksmuseum, Velasquez’s Portrait of Innocent X at the Palazzo Doria Pamphili or Las Meninas at the Prado? The Louvre recently opened, but not to Americans who have been barred from entering the EU. One way to deal with the cataclysmic changes that have affected and will continue to affect humanity is to treat them like the grieving over a dead or lost lover who's not coming back. Some never get over such loses and go into a state of protracted mourning in which they simply refuse to live. Others have hope beyond hope and exist for a future which actually may never be. There's something almost enviable in seeing the lucky or unlucky few (depending on your view of delusion) who're constantly buoyed by their messianic views. Then there is the esthetic approach in which you undertake to look at life as material for a work of art that’s in the process of being created (remember Kierkegaard talked about the esthetic, moral and religious stages). Everything is gris for the mill, including suffering by virtue of sickness, isolation and death. It’s all a story and without the bump in the road, the tale would be less compelling. The satisfaction comes from getting it all down on canvas or paper, though the price to be paid is the one degree of separation that occurs both in good and bad times.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Final Solution: Is Globalism Too Confining a Concept?


The globalism that was the big hope of the Obama years has given way to interplanetarianism. The notion that nations could all align against shared hazards like the greenhouse effect or coronavirus, for that matter, has not become a reality. In fact, the United States under Donald Trump has become the leader in a kind of isolationist America First policy that was one of Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogans in the l920 election. "Two Promising Place to Live, 1200 Light-Years From Earth," ran a Times headline a while back (NYT, 4/19/13). The piece actually anticipated a growing movement that’s seeking to escape disease, racial and economic inequality and environmental problems that are beyond the ken of Greta Thunberg. 1200 light-years exceed the life span of turtles (notorious for longevity) or even those who maintain a vegan diet, but there’s the possibility of a migrating civilization. The idea is to travel to a faraway carbon-based destination which is conducive to human life in a wagon train of biospheres that hold out the possibility of intergenerational as well as interplanetary travel. After all there is biblical precedent. Moses never made it to the promised land.You may get to Kepler 62f, but it’ll be nice to know the nth power of your great great great grandkids might. In the meanwhile, along the way, you’ll have a better time than all the people back on the divisive and plague-ridden earth.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive



Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) invents its own cinematic version of magical realism. In this case the stylization takes the form of shots that seem to decompose or transform right before the viewer’s eyes. There’s a recurring image of a car disappearing down a winding road counterpoised to a reverse motion of the tracks widening with a train’s arrival. The showing of Frankenstein in a rural Castillan movie house sets the tone of impending threat. What poses as entertainment is a potential nightmare and terror lurks behind the beautifully shot scenes that run through the film. Ana Torrent, the child actress who would  later appear in Carlos Saura's Cria Cuevos (1976), plays a similar role in this earlier film—as a witness. In both movies, childhood is an invidious terrain like the well into which Ana recurrently stares, haunted and always forbidding. Ana’s fears are dismissed by her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria), who plays dead and then like Frankenstein comes back to life. The girls’s mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) is almost entirely absent with the exception of a brief sequence in which she’s writing and narrating a letter to a lover. The father, Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a beekeeper who diarizes the behavior of his swarm. Dr. Frankenstein’s contravention is to play god, but Fernando is a curious mixture since he’s an observer of nature as well as a scientist himself, toying with his own mysterious invention. Erice’s film was made during the end of the Franco era. It dramatizes the tyranny of silence and absence. Fernando’s swarm of bees represent yet another form of social organization that’s totally impervious to  human life.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Final Solution: The Bubble Effect


Little fragments of the old life appear out of nowhere. They’re like the oasis hallucinated by the feverish and thirsty traveler, evanescent bits of the past that dissolve as soon as you try to touch them. In reality, the isolation created by a highly contagious deadly disease has created a world of pods, in which small groups usually of one or two souls attempt to navigate their way from one hopefully safe space to the other. Still one hangs onto the illusory moments, a car parked beside a highway under an old oak, as the broadcasts of NPR or the BBC provide a life line to a remembered world of sanity, civility and society. Even though the voices in all probability constitute a mosaic with the whole being more than the sum of the parts (consisting of lonely broadcasters suffering their own form of technologic confinement), there’s the ineluctable feeling the radio waves beaming their signal are like the path marks of a mountain trail leading from wilderness to civilization. For a moment there’s hope. You hear the Doppler effect of sirens fading into the distance and the lowering of the pitch. You’re assured the world will continue to exist as long you’re there to perceive it.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Final Solution: One Year Later



If you keep a journal, look back at the same day, one year ago. Trump was on the road or had already dismantled the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear treaty and every day represented some new blow to animal species or the environment. The basic idea  was to remove the fetters of regulation (including Obamacare) and globalism. Freedom received a particularly literal interpretation, which always seemed to conveniently circumvent the notion of individual liberty as conferred by the Bill of Rights. Of course, if you were tiring of the pieties of the #MeToo movement or political correctitude, you might have secretly felt a tinge of victory from listening to the profanities ushering from the Trump’s bully pulpit, Twitter. But the fact was the world looked remarkably the same. What could be worse, to reiterate the old joke? It could happen to you. Trump hadn’t succeeded in dismantling Obamacare for one and a thriving economy covered over long festering problems. Today’s diary entry will undoubtedly tell a different story. If you had tired of Greta Thunberg’s Cassandra-like exhortations, you now saw she was speaking the truth. The pandemic was only the first of a series of catastrophes that could bring about the equivalent of a new Ice Age. Within a matter of days sturdy old New York  was foundering. What about Park Avenue with its fortresses of pre-war elegance and its renowned towers of industry leading to Grand Central and the old Viaduct. The streets were suddenly empty with many stalwart Manhattanites fleeing, as the coronavirus brought life to a standstill. Would NYC become like the set of one of the Mad Max films with modern day cowboy/survivors cruising the city in abandoned armored vehicles and tanks? It's hard to believe how fast the illusion of an organized society can become dismantled. Now with the advent of summer, tropical storms present a trilemma to the survivors who remain, hanging on like gamblers who're willing to lose everything in order to win back their gains.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Final Solution: Letting Go

Mont-Saint-Michel (photo: Ryan R. Zhao)
If you’re a believer, you don’t pray for things. However, ironically if you’re not, you’re likely to be burdened with a list of unfilled hopes and wishes which are literally burning a hole in your pocket. In fact, the believer is the one who's mostly likely not to ask for anything but maybe simply "help!" He or she's most likely to relinquish their will. Buddhists say desire is the beginning of suffering and it’s the iron grip, the juggernaut of want that the spiritual individual toys with abandoning. Of course, the prospect of losing control leads to a free fall in which it’s well-nigh impossible to predict where you'll land. In any kind of meditative practice, you entertain the idea of letting go, if only for finite periods of time. Some people go to silent retreats, where the possibility of acting is taken off the table for weeks, months and in some cases for the rest of their lives. BTW,  before you're time has come, you’d better grab a plot or drawer in a columbarium before they’re all gone. It's a seller's market. There aren't too many sale days when it comes to this type of real estate.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Final Solution: Is Mooning a Form of Social Distancing?


drawing by Martin van Maele (1905)
Does mooning qualify as a form of social distancing? Using six feet of distance as a measure, it certainly qualifies. It’s rare that an individual moons closer to six feet and when they do there's usually a protective windshield. Even though the head may be turned down towards the ground it is btw mandatory that those who moon still wear a face mask. On the plus side a picture is worth a thousand words and in the age of the corona pandemic when everyone is worried about aerosols and droplets, a sightly buttock can speak wonders without the usual afflatus (unless of course gaseous foods have been imbibed). Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it. The average person who drops trou is extemporizing in an improvisational context. Besides interstates, pool parties are another place where this form of expression is easily facilitated when a bathing suit or a bikini bottom reveals an orifice that though seldom seen by the public can bear comparison to the mouth. When it’s said of someone that they have a filthy mouth it can actually means that that their talking through their ass. The president has made it clear that he doesn’t like wearing face masks, but he really should consider bending over and dropping his pants at one of his upcoming election rallies. It would be an uplifting way to convey his message to his base.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The 400 Blows


The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Les quatres cents coups, is Truffaut’s David Copperfield and the start of an autobiographical series that included Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) Love on the Run (1979). It’s also inadvertently a love letter to the vanished black and white Paris of photographers like Eugene Atget. The director’s first feature is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the legendary Cahiers du Cinema editor who was a father figure to the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut is not only telling a story but reveling in his discovery of a vocabulary. That’s what he had in common with Godard. Both regarded celluloid as a language. “The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second," Godard famously said. Dissolves, fades and wipes irradiate the film. Early on, the camera pans up at the majesty of the city of light, and the facades of its Beaux Arts exteriors then later captures its cast of characters in dramatic overhead shots. Truffaut’s romance with cinema itself was for Paris what Dziga Vertov’s l929 documentary, Man With a Movie Camera, was for Odessa, Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. Paris Belongs to Me is ironically the title of the film that Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), the film’s rebellious adolescent and his argumentative parents rush out to see in a moment of celebration. “Il avait le fond,” "it has depth" the mother intones to her son's clueless esthetically deprived stepfather. Antoine is at war with authority. British angry young man films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Look Back in Anger (1959) are another point of comparison and of course the director's project was a rebellion against conventional cinema. Balzac is Antoine's hero but he's thrown out of school for plagiarizing his idol whose portrait he keeps in an altar. He runs away from home (prophetically writing to his parents “we’ll discuss all that happened later”) and becomes a thief. He’s a professional outsider, at war with the world and an adolescent version of the venerable tradition of artist criminals--though Truffaut's alter ego the young Doinel is no Genet. In the case of The 400 Blows the transgression significantly amounts to stealing a typewriter. The title of the film derives from the expression “to live a wild life.” "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” is the famed Picasso quote. Doinel is a liar, but his mischief is the first step in the creation of the sensibility many cineastes will one day cherish.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Final Solution: Divina Commedia

Dante by Botticelli (1495)
Those people who have been providing essential services are in an enviable position to the extent that they’re constantly busy. A first responder doesn’t have time to question the meaning of life when he or she is tasked with saving them. Naturally it’s dangerous to be on the front lines and it’s almost laughable to look at those who put themselves in harm's way as benefiting from their position. But then there is the rest of the world, sheltering in place, sequestered and confined to their homes and waiting for the next shoe to drop. Those who've never been in danger of losing anything, including their lives, may be experiencing their first existential moment. As they stare out the windows of their cloistered environments, they will feel that life is passing them by and that they have inadvertently become artistic observers of their own world. Recusal confers a nebulous status on anyone who has retreated from everyday human contact. A primal innocence results after several degrees of separation. You begin to see things that have previously been encapsulated in preconception. Coronavirus is hell, but what circle do you occupy as you wander through this latest iteration of Dante’s Divina Commedia?

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Final Solution: The Coronavirus Vaccine Sweepstakes




8 billion doses will be needed once the competition for the coronavirus ends and a company gets the patent. Then there’s going to be the logistics of how these will be administrated. Will there be those little white tents that have been used for drive-up testing,  with one on every single block in NYC for example? Will there be an army of nurses, doctors and pharmacists enlisted on a 24-hour shifts to meet the demand. Will it be a little like getting those time tickets issued by the Rijksmuseum for the recent "All the Rembrandts" exhibition? Vaccine is an issue for certain faiths. Will it be against the law to refuse inoculation? Will there be fines or even jail sentences meted out to those who refuse to comply? And then magically will civilization return to its normal routines? Will the flight you wanted to Florida or London be full? Will it be hard to get a table at Daniel as it always was. Will all seats in restaurants go back to being pushed together the way they were before there was social distancing?  In other words, will life go on as usual? Will business and relationships pick up where they have left off? Will products move right off the conveyor belt to the loading dock, as if nothing had happened—or not?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Final Solution: Biblical Time


"The Deluge" by Francis Danby (1840)
Has civilization caught up with the bible? Or can it be said than mankind is going through its first truly biblical situation--since the time of the bible that is. Naturally there was the influenza of l918 which may have killed 50 million people, and 32 million have died of AIDS and then there was the bubonic plague which ravaged Europe in the middle ages and which accounted for the Decameron, a series of tales told by survivors who had recused themselves in the hills above Florence. Pompeii and Santorini were both ravaged by volcanoes. However, the highly contagious and deadly Coronavirus has turned into a virtual tsunami--aided and abetted by the interconnectivity and globalism. No one and nothing has been spared and there have been no exceptions, though economic inequality and racism have themselves created a co-morbidity. The most advanced country on the planet, with supposedly the greatest amount of expertise and wealth, is seeing its citizens barred from entrance to EU countries. Who would have thought, but the world itself is on the tipping point with futuristic Mad Max scenarios of desolation already becoming realities? Who will want to live and work in the great cities of the world whose cultural institutions have become shuttered? Homo sapiens depend on reason and rationality. Consciousness is the great accomplishment of prehensile creatures, but what’s exacerbating the current problem and allowing for the spiking of the disease in those states which have been too precocious in reopening their economies is their failure to understand the biblical nature of the current onslaught. Technological man expects and demands an immediate cure. There's still no vaccine for AIDS or even the common cold. Is there surety one will be found for Coronavirus? The disease is something that it may be necessary to accommodate to. Periods of optimism in which one or another society seems like a safe haven may be followed by "dark ages" in which whole populations walk around with deadened eyes like characters in a zombie movie. It might not be six months, a year or even two, rather 40 years that the human race wanders in the desert before finding its promised land. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Final Solution: Narcissistic Grandiosity

Superman (DC Comics)
Superman is not just a legend or a philosophical concept out of Nietzsche. The Uberbensch is an ideal that many people hone to with tenacity. The tightrope walking of the Wallendas and the free soloing of El Capitan are examples of abilities that create awe in spectators. Houdini could be chained within a submerged box and free himself. And there are Gary Kasparov and Steven Hawking who possess superhuman mental and mnemonic skills. A Mersenne prime has been tallied with almost 13 million digits. Who has the largest photographic memory? Superheroes in movies reflect the Walter Mitty-like romance with power. Those who don’t possess great skills may also possess a narcissistic grandiosity or megalomania that make them feel impervious to the vulnerabilities that their more vulnerable confreres suffer. However there's literally no amount of mental fortitude, physical strength or non-quitting spirit that will defeat COVID-19. Remission within a population may be achieved by recusal on a mass scale, but that involves confinement and it brings to mind the old boxing expression, “you can run but you can’t hide.” Neither physical, nor psychological fortitude are potent enough to subdue a virus like COVID-19. It would be nice to think that admitting defeat, such as alcoholics do when they admit powerlessness, would make some sort of difference. Yet failing to fight back in some way is also likely to hasten its spread.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Final Solution: Pattern Recognition


Is there always silver lining? Murderous genocides like those perpetrated by Buddhist monks against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar have uprooted and devastated whole populations. Ice caps melt, sea levels rise and yet the Amazon rainforest continues to be despoiled. No pandemic has probably ever affected the world as greatly as the coronavirus, but it appears doubtful that lessons are being learned--particularly in the United States where the president refuses to wear a mask. Still, it’s always easier to prepare against the knowable than the unknowable. All the ventilators, face masks and hand lotion aren’t going to be a bulwark against as yet unthinkable diseases that are the product of a world that is literally beginning to tilt on its axis. There's an economic domino effect that occurs when supply chains begin to break. At the worst, businesses can’t pay taxes to governments who can no longer pay their bondholders. Mitch McConnell’s comments about letting states go into bankruptcy notwithstanding, it would be a catastrophe of the tax free municipals and even US Treasuries stopped being both a safe investment and reliable way for governments to meet their obligations. The problem is mirrored on a more global scale when dying infrastructures can no longer provide a bulwark against the incursion of maladies that may themselves be generated by a worn out planet. Oedipus famously brought about the prophecy he feared (and another plague--the one suffered by the people of Thebes) by trying to avoid it. And what if there were a way to see the future? Often the omens comes as riddles that need to be decrypted. How will anyone be able to act, when there's no agreement about the nature of the signs?

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Final Solution: Man Plans. God Laughs

Now Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are talking about quarantining people from states like Texas and Arizona where the coronavirus is peaking ("N.Y. Will Impose Quarantine on States With Big Outbreaks," NYT, 6/24/20) At one point several months ago the governor of Rhode Island briefly tried to stop cars with New York license plates (until Andrew Cuomo intervened) and there was a period when people driving even from New York to Long Island were supposed to quarantine themselves for 2 weeks once they’d arrive at some bucolic Hampton’s spot. Even though the EU has opened up its borders, it has decided to bar American tourists, at least for the present. The tables could easily be turned since quiescence is totally illusory as we have seen in the case of both Korea and China, two countries whose early declarations of victory turned out to be hollow when cases suddenly spiked (in the case of Korea when a single infected person infected nightclub patrons in Seoul). The coronavirus is peculiar, since it won’t be wrestled with, nor does it respond to displays of bravado. If there's an underlying powerlessness which characterizes the human condition, then the current pandemic may be one of the most lucid manifestations of how little control one has over anything. Man plans. God laughs.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Final Solution: Never on Sunday



Remember Never on Sunday (1960), the Jules Dassin film about the Greek prostitute (Melina Mercouri. "Greece says it'll reopen to tourists July as it claims success over Covid-19," (CNN) "Brothels to Reopen But Hookers And Clients Required to Wear Masks and Gloves?ran the headline in Nation and State (5/4/20). One announcement came on the heels of the other. While New Yorkers were taking baby steps in terms of allowing outdoor dining with social distancing, their Greek counterparts were obviously dealing with the resumption of more carnal satisfactions. Of course, the blow to prostitution has been one of the least hotly debated issues that’s arisen from the pandemic—though the pictures of the Amsterdam’s shuttered Red Light district have been a source of consternation to sex workers and customers alike. In a way it’s nice that one of the world’s oldest civilizations is paying attention to the needs of the world’s oldest profession. Plato you may remember argued against poets and poetry in The Republic (too bad he didn’t live to read C.P. Cavafy), but he didn’t opine about Dionysius. Let’s say you get on an Olympic Air flight to Greece and you find yourself wandering around The Acropolis or some other ancient ruin on a hot summer afternoon, will you be adjourn to the Temple of Aphrodite? Obviously, social distancing has a different meaning in Athens than it does in New York.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Final Solution: Headstands


It is not hard to stand on your head. There are several methods. One way that’s popular with practitioners of Yoga is to wedge your forehead between your palms. A certain a amount of practice is necessary and eventually the balancing becomes effortless and you can remain upside down for indefinite periods of time. The process is a metaphor for something but it’s unclear what. Any activity that defies gravity always exudes a certain air of impossibility. If you can stand on your head, why can’t you fly? Myths have been created out of such death-defying impulses. For instance, Icarus  ignores his father Daedalus’ warning that his wax wings will melt, but it’s the wings that also free them from the labyrinth where the minotaur resides. Once standing on your head in the early morning becomes part of your routine (and you may still ask why) then you'll find that thoughts rush into your brain along with all the blood. By the time you’re ready to come down into a cat stance or downward dog you will return to normal, even if the world is still in chaos and you've had to jump through hoops to get to where you want to be.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Final Solution: The Ouroboros

drawing of alchemical tract by Synesius  (Theodoros Pelecanos, 1478)
Serpents are creatures of temptation. The serpent lures Eve with  the forbidden fruit. In one sense a serpent is a snake, but it often seems capable of ambulating in a vertical way like a prehensile creature. Look at the upright serpents bobbing through festivities on the Chinese New Year’s. Serpents are beguiling since they're venomous and joyous at the same time. What goes around comes around.  Serpents are frequently anthropomorphized and often personify human flaws. Fire may emanate from their mouths as a sign of volcanic anger. The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol of the serpent eating its own tail. It’s a little like the cyclical view of history Vico advocated in the Scienza Nuova and also strangely prescient if you look at the arc of recent events. Hegel proposed a dialectics in which opposing historical forces (thesis, antithesis) produced the result (synthesis), but now such an evolutionary prospect seems delusory in this the Year of the Rat.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Final Solution: The Divided Self



“Shadow Play,” a Twilight Zone that aired on May 5, 1961 presents Dead Man Walking with a Beckett/Bishop Berkeley, esse est percipi (“to be is be perceived”) twist. Dennis Weaver, the convicted criminal, who's about to be executed pleads for a stay,  insisting that the world is dependent on his perception of it.  If he’s executed, it will cease to exist. It’s also a little like Ground Hog Day since the scenario with some themes and variations continues to repeat itself each time the sentence is about to be carried out. Haven’t you woken up in the current pandemic with its attendant noxious cocktail of racism and economic inequality and wished it was all a dream that simply evaporated? What a relief to find that the current nightmare was merely a form of suicidal ideation and that there was no need to be afraid to be in the company of other human beings? Perhaps you might even unthink it by no longer existing.There have been numerous treatments of mental illness.  In The Snake Pit (1948), Olivia de Havilland suffers from schizophrenia. In Hitchcock’s Spellbound an otherwise “sane” person is made to feel they have lost their mind. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Milos Forman film made from the Ken Kesey novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and David and Lisa all present various states of what Rimbaud referred to as “les derangements des sens.” R.D. Laing’s 60s tome, The Divided Self argued that schizophrenia was not really an aberration, but merely another way of thinking. Considering the current state of isolation in which many people now find themselves, hearing voices may turn out to be a relief or even blessing.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Final Solution: Noise


Have you ever watched shooting stars on a clear summer’s night, particularly somewhere in New England where the skies are particularly clear? What’s astonishing is the constancy and number. The forces of nature have gone to great trouble to create these enormous sources of energy whose half-lives are so enduring as to constitute mini-eternities. Yet in a flash they're consecrated to their respective oblivions. Talking about looking at things under the aspect of eternity. Back down in the blogosphere “the tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” continues on, with lots of entrances and exits, deafening applause or roars of disapproval. Much classic science fiction whether it’s Star Wars or Star Trek creates worlds which are allegories for life on earth, with surrogates for political beings dressed in spacy costumes. However, if any real alien ever landed on this oversized asteroid, they might be singularly impressed by the noise generated by what seems like a comparatively diminutive civilization whose singular defining characteristic, consciousness, might pale in contrast to the kinds of inventions possessed by higher forms of life. It’s all chatter that's abruptly ended when the creature known as man makes his sometimes unexpected departure with an understudy picking up the his or her role.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Final Solution: Sum Ergo Cogito?


As perpetual wannabees human beings place great store on their own consciousness of themselves. Hamlet might have been one of the most entitled characters in theater history. In his famous soliloquy he’s giving himself points for thinking and some might say justifying the excesses of his behavior by displaying the creativity of his mind or madness. But is it possible that however much an achievement consciousness might be that it’s only structurally different from what say insects produce. After all ants and bees have their own aristocratic orders which undoubtedly preceded the advent of man. Who's to say that thought is superior to hive mind? In terms of productivity, you might place your bets on an ant colony, even if there are few entomologists who could point to the advent of concepts like equal rights and democracy in the internecine world where bole weevils and termites create their infernal machine. It’s as consoling to apotheosize reason as it was to think of the earth, as being square, or at the center of a universe around which the sun rotated. Is it possible than homo sapiens are not so smart and are even more lost (and in fact instinctually handicapped) than their cousins in the animal world, precisely because they have such a high opinion of their own capabilities?

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Final Solution: Net Worth



Can you judge the net worth of an individual by how much money is in their bank account? It’s almost juvenile to aver that people ascribe to higher values that are more telling barometers than the cash, stocks or bonds they have accumulated. For instance, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Jack Ma (the owner of Alibaba) are often at the top of the list, when you’re considering the richest. Elon Musk of Tesla fame, Virgin founder Richard Branson inhabit a lower rung the food chain. And Donald Trump is often cited as having dubious solvency. His real estate and hotels must be taking a real hit due to the pandemic. But how to define worth? In alchemy the object is to turn base metal into gold. Then there's the question of immortality. Faust sold his soul for a bite of that precarious apple  that resulted in the Adamic fall. The glimmerings of the Boson, the ultimate element of matter, as seen in barely perceptible scratch marks produced in the Large Hadron Collider might be said to a piece of information of incalculable value, as would be discovery of cold fusion. Imagine liberating untold stores of energy with no greenhouse effect? How would society ever be able to be aware of such a discovery and would the pay check be close to that earned by the inventor of a coronavirus vaccine or even a vaccination against the common cold?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Self-Portraiture 101



Oriental Potentate With a Kris, Self-Portrait by Rembrandt
Do you ever think about what you look like? What you really look like, not whether you're conventionally handsome or beautiful or conform to some commonly held stereotype, like the Marlboro Man or the Clairol Woman or Kim Kardashian--out of central casting. Have you ever considered your features in the way an artist creates a self-portrait, freed of judgements relating to things like social capital, and more influenced by the plasticity of the surfaces involved? Is your face for instance ruddy and round or narrow and wrinkled? If you're not exhibiting a stiff upper lip in your behavior, is your lip thin or full? Are you one of those people who were born with a natural form of Botox that gives your face the lush garden effect of an Archimboldo? There's a lot to discover in a face. Rembrandt was probably the greatest self-portraitist of all time and he did many of them, not out of vanity but because he liked to act and cast himself in varying roles? If nothing else his portraiture demonstrated the protean and labile nature of personality, but the discovery of himself was plainly inductive and accomplished from the ground up with the genius technique evinced is the drawing of his own hairs. Mirror, mirror…is the kind of value judgement the Evil Queen asks, but pick up a mirror and start to look at yourself, not from within but without. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” says Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Final Solution: Crowd Sourcing



The fun of collective activity is lost on determined individualists. Trump’s base is a collectivity and they enjoy it. The huge opposition to the Trump agenda is a collectivity who suffer from the repeal of a progressive global agenda, but they secretly also enjoy their shared purpose and agenda. Without the opposition to Trump they wouldn’t have each other. So why can’t everyone enjoy the feeling of belonging and the strength that comes in numbers? Part of the answer may go back to kindergarten. Some people just never fit in. They’re quirky in a way that either they don’t want everybody or nobody wants them. The famous Groucho Marx quip, “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member," later appropriated by Woody Allen actually explains the ethos of this ever dwindling group of outcasts, misfits and on the positive side eccentrically colorful characters, who had a brief heyday during the late l9th century in the world of the dandy, boulevardier and flaneur, in the 50s with Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs and in the early 70s following the decline of the love generation when there was a brief spike in the presence of self-invented Edwardian dandies who inhabited the club scene. Thomas Mann apotheosized this kind of romantic individualism in his famous character Tonio Kroger, a citation itself which has itself become rarified in our current aspirational world. Fascism and Communism are the epitomes of collectivities—though there's the curious anomaly that the dictatorship of the proletariat, for example, is actually the dictatorship of Lenin, Stalin and other party apparatchiks. The pie-eyed individualist is going to walk away from any mob. He or she will refuse to be lifted up and will actually scowl from the sidelines, despite the occasional longing to belong.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Final Solution: Waiting for Godot


Samuel Beckett (photo: Roger Pic)
To many the quarantining, social distancing, and confinement are equivalent to seeing a particularly untoward vision in a crystal ball. Close friends are no longer accessible and while some people have compensated by using teleconferencing services like Skype and Zoom, others have withdrawn into the cocoon of an almost comforting hermeticism. Living in a pandemic is a good preview of old age and end of life issues. Those who may have considered assisted living might have had their spirits permanently dampened by the outbreaks of coronavirus in many facilities. Still, one can’t help but wonder how one will deal with the isolation and loneliness of the later years, particular in a society where large extended families can no longer be depended on to provide a sense of belonging. The pandemic has made many people rethink the very nature of human interchange and has underscored what may have long been missing, though covered over with the anodyne of so-called normalcy. Taking the wrapping paper off, the result is in danger of becoming a Beckettian scenario, with the homeostasis of the organism engineered through a zero sum back and forth. Vladimir: Shall we go? Estragon: Yes, let’s go. (they don’t move).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Final Solution: Pigging Out



Have you thought about what you're going to do the day you get your release papers? Remember those old movies where the gangster gets let out of the slammer and you know he’s going right back to the old life. The fact is that when cities and states open up it’s likely to be slowly--as in the case of New York City which has just begun Phase I and is slowly getting its legs back. There have even been cases where merchants beg the local government not to open up too quickly as in Connecticut where there had been pushback from some retailers—though the barbers and nail salons were sorely disappointed when a promised opening date was rescinded. But let’s say the day finally comes and magically all your favorite restaurants have come up with social distancing plans or have been sold elaborate sanitizing set ups by one of the many companies who will have come on the scene to exploit the need for health and safety plans (surely this will become a business in and of itself). How are you going to celebrate? Will it be steak, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, deli, Mediterranean or will you simply repair to the diner on the corner which has long been your hangout and the place where you licked you wounds after a hard day out in the world trying to sell either yourself or your goods? It’s probably going to be hard to decide. There's a famous parable in medieval philosophy where the ass starves or dies of thirst because it can’t decide if it wants to eat or drink. Maybe it will be a stalemate or perhaps you’ll eat in five different restaurants on that great come-and-get-it-day and then come home with a stomach ache.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Final Solution: The Masque



The masque was popular in the 16th and l7th centuries. You find waltzes with masked player as interludes for instance in Moliere's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. On television the most famous masked character was of course The Lone Ranger. In our current age, the character of Tonto, a subservient Native American who called his master "Kemosabe" would be unheard of--neither would he be allowed in most supermarkets, without borrowing his bosses' famed appurtenance Then there were the masks worn by executioners and those who engaging in sado-masochistic role playing of the kind that went on in the famous masked scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Now, however, with the advent of the coronavirus the mask has a achieved a respectability it never had before. Face covering in public by Muslim women with either the burqa or niqab has been  prohibited in countries like France which experienced Charlie Hebdo among other terrorist incidents, since the mask didn’t allow you to identify potential terrorists. However, how can anyone object to any face coverings, when masks are now required? Masks will probably be with us for some time and they’re already becoming a fashion statement. Wannabe doctors or nurses of course prefer the bare bones medical look. This year’s About Time: Fashion and Duration was cancelled due to the pandemic, but it won’t be surprising if the major fashion houses include new masked fashions for the Met's 2021’s gala.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Final Solution: PTSD


News reports over the Memorial Day weekend reported an upsurge in social interactions, some of which ran counter to and were blatantly defiant of CDC recommendations about social distances ("Pool Party at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri Draws a Packed Crowd," CNN, 5/24/20). One way to deal with trauma is to pretend it’s not there. Yet such behavior can challenge even the most compartmentalized personality. It’s hard to eradicate the memory of freezer trucks parked near hospitals pile high with bodies. And now there's the Times video ("8 minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody") replaying the George Floyd murder. What did the residents of Auschwitz think was occurring in the camps? You try to deny the knowledge of atrocity for the sake of survival but ultimately the voices catch up. There’s no way to avoid them, no way to get on with the pool party, as if nothing happened, when almost 100,000 Americans have died, with 1.7 million infected? And then despite the years of protests about systemic racism, there's the murder of George Floyd. Will mass depression, anxiety and sleeplessness—all symptoms of PTSD—become the legacy of the survivors of coronavirus and of the continued attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Will survivors’ guilt also be a byproduct of the long period of living through the latest iteration of the plague--a commorbity and noxious cocktail of disease and racial inequality. Boccaccio’s Decameron is attracting a new readership. Its characters tell tales to each other as they attempt to endure the bubonic plague of the 14th century ("What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About,"The New Yorker, 3/23/20). Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year represents a similar attempt to deal with the coping mechanisms amidst a pestilence. One unfortunately expects first responders, doctors and nurses to experience PTSD in the wake of a pandemic, but what will the effect be on the general population? How will collective trauma be processed by the population at large?

Monday, June 8, 2020

A Short Film About Love


Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love (1988) is remarkable in that it’s the reverse of what it seems to be. It derives by the way from Dekalog Six, an episode of his famed television series. The beginning moments are a series of stop action shots and silhouettes. You see a young postal worker, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) breaking into a storage unit to find a telescope, juxtaposed to images of the promiscuous young woman painter Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska) he spies upon. These early scenes immediately conjure Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Parenthetically all of these movies share the fact that they’re filled with now antiquated electronic paraphernalia, in the case of A Short Film About Love, old television monitors, alarm clocks, water heaters, which retrospectively add a peculiarity and charm as you see them from the vantage point of present day technology. But Kieslowski’s brilliance is to turn the palette of voyeurism on its head since the film is less about a paraphilia than the form of human connection denoted by the film’s disarming title. You might say it's voyeurism in reverse, but that wouldn't do the film justice since it's less about voyeurism or on the other end of the spectrum, exhibitionism, than introspection. Kieslowski’s vision is at once classically romantic in that it’s based on the imaginative power of what doesn’t exist (enhanced with his initial use of shadows and bifurcated spaces) and at the same time something even more unique.The one attempt at true consummation in the movie is an abysmal failure, but you realize that Tomek’s ploys—heavy breathing calls, the sending notices of false money orders (to lure Magda to his "window" at the post office), the false reporting of gas leaks in Magda's apartment, and intercepting mail—all constitute a kind of stage business. By redefining love as a ritualistic performance, the director expands his vocabulary of emotion beyond the usual symbols of unification and transcendence. Love as it’s presented in this strikingly touching film turns out to be closer to the experience of everyday reality with its signs and symbols and failed attempts at connection. In one of the film's culminating scenes Magda experiences what it's like to love and be loved by seeing herself through Tomek's telescope. What results is a universe that’s as intimate as it is mundane. There are insinuations of Christ imagery in the stigmata resulting from Tomek's attempts at self-mutilation. However, what seems like perversion in the end has the choreography, the stopping and starting and grey areas that define less the experience of passion than the Heideggerian dasein, "being there."

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Final Solution: Breaking News


If you’d increasingly been finding the news cycles on CNN repetitive—with the same "breaking news" about some dreary bill in congress being hammered in until hell freezes over, the pandemic and recent demonstrations in cities across the country may have alleviated the problem. When is “breaking news” demoted to being simply “news” and is it time sensitive or merely about the category of broken things--like say congress? Would the president relegate one of his most respected advisors Dr. Anthony Fauci to obscurity just as he did contestants on The Apprentice? Would CNN headquarters get sacked? Would Chris Cuomo be warning correspondents like Sara Sidner to run for it in the face of a pushback on demonstrators. Let’s face it, watching police playing cat and mouse with looters is dramatic, especially when the looters are trashing fancy Madison Avenue you never liked to begin with. You may have been bored with the way CNN and other networks banged out the same tedious stories on a 24 hour basis under the guise of presenting some new pressing item. However, one of the few facts of our current comorbidity is the fact that you can’t take your eyes off the TV.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Final Solution: Using Social Distance for Fun and Profit




Were you social distancing before the pandemic already started? Did you find that you were staying away from people, perhaps not to protect your health, but your self-esteem or just to get back at jerks? Or are you just naturally standoffish? Social distancing can be an excellent survival mechanism when you're in the presence of a person who has a history of being critical or attacking of you. When social distancing in situations where coronavirus is not a factor that six feet of distance will usually be as effective as it is in preventing the spread of the virus. For instance, you’re unlikely to hear someone talking behind your back if you’re six feet away and six feet can be a long distance to cover at a cocktail party, in terms of fending off unwanted advances. At six feet you can see that someone is about to come your way and it leaves plenty of room for an end run. Conversely, closing a gap of six feet is like making an announcement. It’s an extremely prominent sally. If you see someone you don’t like who happens to be three or four feet away, then just step back a few steps until the distance has increased to six and they'll have to take a real chance if their intention is to start up a conversation. Many people who were practicing social distancing before the outbreak of the current pandemic had a head start, in that they had the tools to avoid others. Undoubtedly there will be those who'll continue to employ the techniques they’ve learned to combat the virus with those they deem to be infectious in the wrong kind of way. BTW if you're someone who always hated bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals then you're undoubtedly having a party--in this new age where the  tendency of similarly charged particles to repel has suddenly become attractive.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Final Solution: Comorbidities




Comorbidity is a word that you may have heard with respect to the pandemic. The idea is that there’s an attendant condition which exacerbates an already potentially life-threatening illness. In a certain sense, the concept of simultaneous insults to homeostasis seems to define the human condition. The meme “the perfect storm” refers to the confluence of two or more threatening contingencies. The staggering giant, Uncle Sam, already wounded by a virus, is doused with a combustible substance whose flammability is exponentially increased—the effects of pernicious and endemic racism being bumped up with the agent of economic inequality. It’s like going from U-238 to U-235 the kind of uranium that’s destabilized enough to create a nuclear reaction. Most experts at the CDC and elsewhere have predicted an upsurge or second wave of coronavirus, when the flu season begins in the fall. This is what occurred if you look at the curve charting the progress of the flu in l918. There was the outbreak followed by a remission before the cases spiked even more precipitously again. A remediation of systemic racism is a high though absolutely necessary bar to jump. Hollow words ring more hollow than ever amidst the current crisis. The need to discover a vaccine that protects against COVID-19 and will also provide immunity from future mutations of the virus proposes a whole different set of challenges. But besides the Sirens and Polyphemus, what other comorbidities will Odysseus confront on his journey home?