Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Final Solution: Categorical Imperative City

 Immanuel Kant (Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768)

Maybe the time for equilibration and its coadjutant relativism are gone. Tolerance of viewpoints and behaviors together with an understanding and respect for ambivalence can be humanizing forces. But there are times when everyone is not entitled to their opinion and when the expression of certain viewpoints is not simply, as the deconstructionists would have it, ideological. In other words, there's a Kantian categorial imperative, a right and wrong. Equanimity is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the middle of a pandemic and environmental crisis. QAnon supporters who believe the cornonavirus is part of a conspiracy theory emanating from a deep state don’t have a point of view that deserves a hearing any more than anyone can cry “fire” in a  crowded movie theater. If someone makes claims there's too much testing (as the president has done) and then goes on to give themselves an A+ for handling the coronavirus, he or she is actually causing more deaths. To say that some of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville are “very fine people,” as Trump did, is tantamount to a Sieg Heil. How does one maintain Enlightenment values on the eve of Kristallnacht?

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Final Solution: The Clouds

It's a bad time for the “I can’t complain” crowd. Anyone who answers “I can’t complain” when asked how they are can genuinely be diagnosed with one of those disorders in which the sufferer’s view of reality has become radically compromised. But where does "I can't complain" fare on the spectrum of emotions with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, West Coast fires generating so much smoke in the upper atmosphere that Europe has begun to feel the effects in its upper atmosphere (governor Gavin Newsom said breathing the air in certain areas of California is like smoking 400 cigarettes a day) and a pandemic raging amidst the comorbity of racial and economic inequality. The answer is that there isn’t much reason to believe that the clouds are going to part both literally and metaphorically in the near future. And by the way if you’re thinking of escape don’t run down to the panhandle where the rains from Hurricane Sally are flooding the levees. So what stance is one to take, stoic acceptance, happiness for being alive and gratitude or a general feeling of terror, fear and awe at the reality that's unfolding right before one’s eyes? Spiritual programs are elixirs that are usually predicated on a certain level of acceptance that goes hand in hand with a lowering of expectations. But the danger with such attitudes is a kind of Polyannaism that doesn’t allow for merited alarm. If the sky is falling or in this case disappearing, someone has to tell the truth. Is your head in the clouds?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Annals of Consciousness: More Bang For Your Buck

drawing: Sigmund Freud

What a shattering insult finitude is the ego! Despite claims to the contrary all organic and for that matter inorganic matter partakes of  the impulse to individuate. The condition of being separate and peculiar in order to possess some form of eschatological or teleological importance is the aim of the evolutionary process that would eventuate in human consciousness. People plan their demise and designate the repository for both their remains and possessions in their wills, but right up until their last minute on earth they still hold to the notion that they'll receive a reprieve, ultimately allowing them to live forever. They will be on the list of presidential pardons. Clemency will be granted and instead of that final meal, the door of the prison of mortality will be opened, becoming the one cosmic exception with that ray of light or boson from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, irradiating their countenance.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Final Solution: Cryptocurrency


photo: Martin E. Walder

“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” says Satan in Paradise Lost. It was a quote cited by Steve Bannon in Errol Morris' controversial American Dharma, a film that unintentionally lionized the former White House strategist. Apparently, the stock market itself partakes of the satanic. While monstrous suffering affects Americans all over the country, who have been hit with the comorbidity and perfect storm of coronavirus and racial inequality, the market has taken on a life of its own, an alchemical elixir which resembles a little what Faust was seeking when he made his bargain with Mephistopheles.Value-free economics has always been the mantra of the free market but now evil has become the lingua franca of the American Dream minting its own cryptocurrency whose fungibility is only based upon marketability. In as much as the coronavirus has chastened the human race, it’s also produced a counterreaction in which death tolls and consequences, now are treated as fake news.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Final Solution: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Youth is wasted on the young goes the old saw. The homily might be modified as the memory of civilization when the earth seemed bright and fresh and there was a feeling of possibility and even innocence  is wasted on the young. Of course, humankind has always gone through periods of great affliction, but the current perfect storm of massive wildfires in the West, the comorbidity of racial and economic inequality and coronavirus  (that is being met with denial by a very healthy part of the population who regard fear itself as a QAnon plot), multiple hurricanes, and a president who threatens to actually destroy democratic institutions (imagine The White House changed into The House of Trump) all create a wistful nostalgia for even periods like the 50s when nuclear Armageddon threatened. As one sails past the empty office buildings of Madison and Park Avenue in Manhattan and confronts the empty hulk of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Grand Central, one longs for former ages when the world was falling apart in ways that were still imaginable. Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, and Jonas Salk all produced life saving vaccines, but will anyone really come forth with a shot which will deal with corona and all its possible mutations? Are the charred ruins of a land mass equal to New Jersey betokening the fact that climate change has crossed a new threshold of uncontrollability. Could this be it? Boccaccio wrote The Decameron which depicted a group of aristocrats amusing themselves with tales while waiting for the plague to pass. Has the point come where there won’t be enough Netflix series to carry us through the long period of danger that lies ahead and threatens to close down the world entirely?

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Final Solution: Waste

The opposite of planned obsolescence is mandated superfluity. There was a period when unions exerted so much control in certain industries that some companies were forced to hire workers for jobs that essentially didn’t exist. Capitalism is actually a stream-lined system in which entrepreneurs attempt to minimize costs in order to produce commodities cheaply, but in a wealthy society, accommodations and concessions are often made for the sake of equanimity. Allowing the market to totally determine wages actually begins to have a negative effect on the social fabric evidenced by the deleterious effects of economic inequality. This was the theme of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. Concessions to labor made by the entrepreneurial or ownership class in fact ultimately guarantee the perpetuation of their own privileged elite. Naturally, with technology and automation some of these earlier assumptions have been and will continue to be challenged. Co-optation was a word used by 60s radicals to describe a process by which the proletariat is basically bought off. “Repressive desublimation” was an expression the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse used to describe a process by which pleasure itself is used  for pacification. A recent New Yorker review/essay by Atul Gawande about Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism "Why Americans Are Dying of Despair,"(3/23/20) explores the rise in mortality in a demographic where it might not otherwise be expected,  in a growingy disenfranchised middle-aged white population.

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Pawnbroker

Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) could only have been made in its time. It’s the black and white world of gritty New York, the world of movies like Little Fugitive about the kid who gets lost in Coney Island. The Quincy Jones music, the down home lettering of the film's logo, the faces of families crowded in tenement windows, the famous scene of the hooker pulling off her top and the even more famous scene of Nazerman's (Rod Steiger) stigmata. Then there are the Checker cabs, Nina Simone headlining at The Apollo, the marquee of the L Shaped Room with Leslie Caron and, of course,  those 60s subways cross-cutting to the cattle cars on the way to the camps. “You have made this afternoon very tedious with your constant search for an answer,” he tells Marilyn Burchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), the resident social worker, trying to break through. He also intones, “Next to the speed of light which Einstein sights as the only absolute, only second to that is money.” Today The Pawnbroker with its lightning quick flashbacks might be an essay in trauma theory. A concentration camp survivor, who has lost the ability to feel, relives his past. “I didn’t die,” he later tells Marilyn who significantly occupies an apartment near an iconic seat of culture, Lincoln Center, “Everything I love was taken away from me and I didn’t die.” There have been many other films made about the Holocaust, but the The Pawnbroker is a period piece, a film with method acting melodrama, played to the hilt, that’s at the same time eternal. It should be noted that Boris Kaufman, younger brother to  Dziga-Vertov of Man With a Movie Camera fame was the cinematographer and the cross-pollination between European culture and the gritty timebound urban landscape may account for the film's majestic compass and earthbound newsreel style. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Conscience Question

Lee Lawrie's "Atlas" (photo: ThreeOneFive)
What about the old question of happiness? If a person feels particularly disinhibited and actually suffers a deficit in the area of conscience, can his or her expressions of delight in a sybaritic existence be taken seriously? If they're experiencing satisfaction even in the course of the unilateral enjoyment of pleasures which may sometimes bring pain to others, are they superior to say the suffering soul who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. You may remember the sculpture of Atlas in front of one of the Rock Center buildings facing Saks. He looks pretty miserable hefting the world, despite the obvious power he’s been building in his quads over “mythic time.” "Thus, conscience doth make cowards of us all," says Hamlet. It’s a hard case to adjudicate and one wonders how the current conservatively biased Supreme Court would rule, with its with its tilt toward individualism and deregulation? Would the sufferers with their lousy guilt-ridden relations win their suit, on the basis of the legacy left for posterity or would the carpe diem side walk away with all the cash and prizes?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Final Solution: Orator

Orator is a work on rhetoric by Cicero, in fact his last say on the subject. An orator is literally someone who, according to the dictionary, “makes formal speeches in public.” Barack Obama is particularly skilled in this area, as is Bill Clinton, whose nomination speech for Hillary was memorable. However, there are many politicians who are skilled orators and among the spouses of famous presidents Eleanor Roosevelt and Michele Obama stand out too. Martin Luther King was a great orator along with Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and most recently Greta Thunberg, who at the ripe age of 17 unleashed an unforgettable jeremiad on climate change to the European parliament which basically held a whole generation accountable for the depredations which their children would face. But in an odd way public harangues are a value-free phenomenon. There are many speakers who have been capable of moving crowds to bad ends. Hitler was of course one and now there’s Trump whose increasingly high "tyranny quotient" allows him to wax for particularly long periods of time. It's characteristic of tyrants that they're both repetitive and capable of brow beating their opponents in an almost incantatory way with the perseveration which might seem obvious to those who resist the calls to oppression becoming almost hypnotic to supporters. It’s a paradox that those who would put a lid on freedom of expression might be most capable of prolixity. Vladimir Putin is a tyrant, but being a former KGB agent, he tends to be relatively taciturn compared to his counterparts in Brazil, Hungary and elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

You Are There

photograph: Thomas J. O'Halloran
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a nowhere which is basically everywhere? It’s almost harder to find one’s way out of the strips of dealerships and fast food joints that are to be found on the outskirts of any major town. There are no signposts since the essence of branding is to create a location which is identical everywhere. How is it possible to distinguish one Wendy’s or McDonald’s from another when the whole idea is to provide the same thing no matter where you go. The same applies with the Holiday Inn Express, whose rooms and facilities are created following the same master plan and grid with the breakfast nook serving a similar menu of modest items, with a small workout room residing by the pool. The buffet of consumerism is all the more disconcerting since there’s the ultimate suggestion that perhaps one is trapped in a never-ending procession of similar entities. Sometimes one segues right into the other and you experience a version of Ground Hog Day. Your Google maps will confirm you’re occupying a new set of coordinates though it’s unclear how you know you’ve gone anywhere.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Boys State

Jesse Mosse and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State at first seems like a piece of garish Americana. Robert Altman’s, Nashville meets the American Legion, which plays a big role as the sponsor of an annual rite of passage.The erstwhile members of an American institution with a famed conservative bias, dressed in their famed regalia, interview candidates--a lesson in American political process. The proceedings in this iteration (there are other Boys and ALA Girls States around the country) take place in Austin, in the shadow of the capital dome; they culminate in an election in which the top dog wins the mock gubernatorial race. There’s even a talent show in which the oddity of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” being performed in a paramilitary setting cannot go unnoticed. The participants which the film captures are mostly good ole boys who have the 4H club clean scrubbed look in their Texas Boys State tee-shirts. Many mimic classically conservative anti-abortion, anti-immigration and pro Second Amendment stances. However there are anomalies which make the movie less of a send up than an exploration of how values  are inculcated. You realize that appearances can be deceiving from the very beginning when a group of boys are being lectured on George Orwell’s l984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Then there’s the fact that the leadership position of the Nationalists, which is one of the two parties in contention (the Federalists are the other) are held respectively by a Mexican-American (Steven Garza) and a Afro- American (Rene Otero). Despite the lily-white demographic, there are other exceptions as the camera pans the audience. In addition, the film is characterized by an anomalous interiority. Rather than creating caricatures, the producers chose a far more complex approach in which thoughtful discourse and one-on-one interviews show how the participants wrestle with the issues on their party platforms. In addition, these teenaged politicians demonstrate an almost uncanny erudition. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum could learn something from these ambitious and aspirational personalities. The film introduces a number of contrarieties that are mind boggling, not the least of which is the Legion's role in orchestrating a level of exchange that many incumbant politicians, on both sides of the aisle, would be hard put to emulate.

Monday, September 7, 2020

22 Minutes or Nine and a Half Weeks

You may recall the l978 novel Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair. Written under a pseudonym, it told the story of an art dealer who gets involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with a Wall Street broker. An excerpt appeared in Playboy and was made into a film starring Kim Basinger who claimed she had been traumatized during the shooting. Daphne Merkin’s 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love bears some comparison, though it's distinguished both by the author's ferocious intelligence and her  metafictional asides. This time the subject is an editor, Judith Stone. She's an ingenue who falls for a lawyer, Howard Rose. The Story of O was the ur-modern novel of sexual cannibalism and before that was, of course, de Sade, who went to prison for the acts he documented. Merkin’s novel is actually a wonderful anachronism to the extent that it recalls a form of sexual desire, centered around submission and domination, that has become forbidden in this era of Newspeak. It does for S&M what samizdat did for poetry during Stalinist times. And it’s also reminiscent of those Victorian novels like The Autobiography of a Flea written by Anonymous. Here is what Laura Kipnis, the author of Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, said on the jacket “Sometimes desire is a catastrophe. You can be a supremely brainy woman and not have the first clue about your predilections, until the wrong man comes along and introduces you to them. Daphne Merkin gives us an exquisitely rendered philosophical mystery about the divided self, and the awkward fact that we don’t necessarily choose what arouses us.” Bravo! And bravo to Merkin and Kipnis for keeping unconscious and irrational desire alive as a subject for art—at a time when feeling, emotion and sexuality itself are increasingly  turned into political choices to be dealt with by absentee ballot.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Final Solution: Fear

Hitler l938 Sudetenland, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-004055/CC-By-SA 3.0)
Fear can be very simple. You cross the street and realize a taxi circling around a double-parked car is coming right at you. You scamper to the curb with your heart pumping. However, it might be exactly the opposite. The phone rings and you're filled with the fear that you're going to be informed of a loss. “I want to end the relationship,” was a call you might have received as a teenager from a girl or boy you’d been dating. Such news usually came on a Friday afternoon in October just as it was beginning to grow dark early. Fearing the worst, you’d fallen into one of those horribly depressing late afternoon sleeps. At the time you undoubtedly were sure you could not live without the love object in question. The thing you were most afraid of was actually happening. Actually, the thing you were most afraid of would go on to happen again and again until you almost got used to the idea of the thing you were most afraid of happening--and your attitude about loss began to evolve. But traumatic events leave a tattoo and now even years later when you have a lot more to lose in the long run, but relatively little to fear for in terms of things like significant others leaving, you still feel that twinge of alarm at certain moments when the lighting begins to throw shadows on your wall. History itself may create anxiety, particularly when you hear the roar of a crowd in response to exhortations of hate from the leader who's addressing them.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Final Solution: Central Park in the Time of Corona

Central Park South (photo:) B137
It's an understatement to say there's something eternal about the weathered underpasses which weave through the Southern end of Central Park. They’re part of a magical kingdom which has outlived both the lives and childhood out of which memories of trips to the zoo, the Carousel and the skating ring have been created. Central Park West itself is lined with iconic structures like the Plaza and the New York Athletic Club. It’s all like some sort of grand theatrical urban choreography with the park furnishing its perennial respite from the machinations of big business that often go on in these nearby auspicious and expensive structures. In the time of corona, the park seems more luxurious than ever, furnishing as it does an oasis from the abandonment which has occurred as life in the city has come to a halt. Theater row may be dormant but the park carries on as if nothing untoward were occurring. Moreover, there’s little fear. For such a huge metropolis Olmstead’s sequestered garden offers a spaciousness that while not immune to the contingencies of viruses still affords the kind of natural expanse in which "normal seeming" life can be carried on. On a recent afternoon, a family attended to an infant while a couple flirted on a nearby bench, as if time had come to a complete stop in its own safe haven.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Final Solution: Xenophobia

photo: Mcj1800
People are naturally xenophobic. You never know what's behind the stranger’s seemingly welcoming smile. Even when the other doesn’t speak a foreign tongue, there's a language that people from certain neighborhoods, cities and ethnicities share. Sometimes these are intentionally opaque, a secret code which is only shared by members of the cell. In fact, social cohesion, to one degree or other, is created through exclusion. Once you attain that hard earned acceptance, you're not going to confer it so willingly on others who haven’t gone through a similar hazing process. On the plus side the sharing of certain customs which might seem strange or even off-putting provides an intimacy that’s not registered in the normal comings and goings to the local hotel chains and fast food places that are symptomatic of the homogenization of society. Equality is a very pleasant byproduct of evolution, but the leveling effect is bought at the price of individuality. Small groups which extrapolate the most naturally selective traits of a particular demographic are, in fact, creating deeper bonds than can be found in mass gatherings where the lowest common denominator becomes the lingua franca of the organization. And it’s understandable that zealots and fundamentalists who share common beliefs might be afraid of dilution and assimilation by the forces of modernity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Final Solution: Utopia

woodcut for 1516 edition of Sir Thomas More's Utopia
What about utopia, by definition that which cannot be? Erewhon, Samuel Butler's novel is with the exception of two letters, "nowhere" reversed. What about an incredibly affluent society gifted with abundant wealth? And what about the idea that those who were capable of exploiting it also had large consciences that accompanied their oversized brains? If you envision them, they might look at little like Spock in Star Trek, being robotic yet empathic at the same time. In this world the enjoyment of progress would not be achieved on the back of the underdog. Those who didn’t share the ambition of “the promotors” would never be penalized. Ample vacation time, maternity leave and good pay for all jobs would be the norm. Free healthcare would be considered a right. Of course, clean air and the environment would be on everyone’s agenda. After all, she’s called mother earth. Sending hydrocarbons is no way to treat mom. And what about elections, demonstrations and protest? Yes, to fair elections with demonstrators and protestors looked at as as guides rather than nuisances. And what about the troublemakers and anarchists whose sole object is to disrupt and for whom the phoenix only rises from the ashes? They actually would turn out to be the most enviable sector of the populace, having been sent off to funny farms where they'd be plied with euphoria inducing drugs. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Final Solution: Dr. Bedpan

Lisbon earthquake with tsunami looming
Voltaire parodied the delusory optimism of Leibnitz in his creation of Dr. Pangloss who infamously intones “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds” a homily that came on the heels of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1555. But what about outright nihilists and pessimists like Turgenev’s Bazarov in Fathers in Sons? What about an anti-Christ named Dr. Bedpan who cries out “all’s for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds?” The problem with millenarian pessimism is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the optimist, however misguided, is a heat seeking missile when it comes to good, the pessimist trumpets the worst. There's glee on his or her face which says “I told you so.” “The masses are the asses,” is a phrase that pessimists enjoy repeating and while they will be the first to admit that there are great leaders whose lives have been devoted to combatting greed and self-seeking, they love to point out the inconsistencies and foibles of even the great. Gandhi may have slept in the nude with young girls to test his control, but it's an anecdote that only demonstrates how desires are always festering. And what about those rumors about Mother Theresa not being so saintly? Are the great and noble souls basically gratifying yet another desire, the wish for sainthood? What’s better? To be a windmill chasing optimist or Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accusing Christ of heresy?

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Final Solution: Sympathy for the Devil

Preaching to the choir is a precarious activity. It’s a little akin to Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection in the well and drowning. Essentially under the guise of trying to convince or convict, you're merely hearing the echo of your own voice. Remember being a teenager and pretending you were the Rolling Stones singing “Sympathy For the Devil” in the bathroom mirror? That’s about the level of reality one's talking about. Not preaching to the choir would be Greta Thunberg in the lineup at the current Republican Convention, speaking about the global warming. Not preaching to the choir would be having Anthony Fauci addressing the same body about the question of testing. Even if you believe you’re on the "politically correct" side of the fence, you should practice listening to those you despise. Democrats sat transfixed as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Cory Booker, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden addressed the DNC, but many thumbed their noses at the RNC, inevitably aping the behavior of their counterparts on the right. But then again since it's only human to want to hear the sound of your own voice or ideas, what good does anything do, when push comes to shove?

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Final Solution: The Living Dead

This is a time of collective nightmares. There was the bubonic plague that was the backdrop for the imaginative escape of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Spanish flu of l918 was the impetus for Katharine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Stephen King dreamed up The Stand as did Steven Soderbergh, Contagion one of the hottest items on the streaming circuit. Now Hurricane Laura is reeking havoc in South Texas and cities like Corpus Christi where coronavirus has been peaking have to contend with a double morbidity of a high order. Might it be said that calamities like these out do the spells wrought by turbulent sleep from which you at least can wake up. Certain kinds of art derive from catastrophizing while other works are a response to the calamities that have or are already occurring. In the case of The Decameron the fictions are both the tales and the characters telling them. The one reality is the plague. Michael Crichton for example conjured up The Andromedia Strain, though fictions based on horrific fantasy always run the possibility of being even more horrifying than reality. It’s one thing to be scared by Night of the Living Dead or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and another to actually come upon zombies or blank eyed trauma victims acting like them walking around the neighborhood. Is this the age of retribution? Is mankind paying for its transgressions, in life as well as art?

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Final Solution: A Comparison Between Trump and Hitler

Are there similarities to Germany before the Second World War and the United States today? Certainly, the primary similarity is the abrogation of constitutional and democratic principles. And naturally there are similarities in the demographics, a large population of disaffected and disenfranchised workers (a "lumpenproletariat") who simply don’t care about principles like "inalienable rights" and "due process" which they look at as the language of an elite, a “swamp” which uses lots of pretty words and phrases to perpetuate its own power. The Versailles Treaty crippled Germany and created the mass discontent which was a fertile ground for the rise of fascism. It’s unclear what the correlation would be to America today. Perhaps the loss of jobs due to automation and technology? Donald Trump doesn’t look like Hitler. He's blond and doesn’t sport a mustache. He's large while Hitler and his Italian counterpart Mussolini were small. However, he harangues crowds in a similar way and he plays to discontent by pillorying his enemies. Statesmanship and presidential behavior are turned on their heads. Respectful discourse is treated as a lie with opponents being labeled with increasingly vile soubriquets., “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie,” "Pocahontas,"  "Crooked Hillary.” Even though Trump’s a self-proclaimed billionaire, he's also makes himself one with his following by openly flouting the whole system including the method by which votes are cast and tallied, in order to disenfranchise the election process before it's started. The hell with ballots or voting or viruses. Trump like his predecessor in Weimar Germany has a messianic appeal in which the weight of truth is placed on oratory itself. He can say that hydroxychloroquine works or that one of the problems in the statistics of the current pandemic is simply too much testing and the words carry a magic that “trumps” scientific fact. Fascism is a juggernaut in which a tsunami of disaffection becomes the fuel for a charismatic speaker.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Final Solution: From Bad to Oblivion

No matter how bad anything may seem, there will come a time when you may look back wistfully to that very day when you were quarantining say and in a state of total incredulity as the president of the United States tried to usurp an election in the middle of a pandemic by walking away with the post office ("Postal Crisis Ripples Across Nation As Election Looms," NYT, 8/17/20). It will get worse and then it will no longer matter since you’ll be dead. So is the point to totally enjoy the completely fucked-up day you’re having and regard it as some kind of high point? Or is it better to be one more hand or arm outstretched towards the heavens? Are you better off joining the chorus of human misery? And if the cries are loud enough will they be answered? Is crying for mercy one way of exercising the right to vote, when the ballot box has actually been hijacked? The pathetic fallacy occurs when nature mirrors the feelings of the inner soul. What to do about the deceptively promising though dissonant feelings deriving from a beautiful summer’s day with the sun shining in a cloudless sky and birds chirping outside the window? Is that a sign? Or, is it just a coincidence that you should enjoy before the onset of the next tropical storm? 

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Defiant Ones

Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) is a thriller about two escaped cons, Noah (Sidney Poitier) and “Joker” (Tony Curtis). On one level it’s a star vehicle and a kind of survival saga a la Deliverance. The two convicts are chained together, with one unable to make a move without the other. But the two characters totally dependent and intertwined  are also reminiscent of Beckett’s metaphysical duo Vladimir and Estragon. If you remember Waiting For Godot opened on Broadway only two years before in 1956. In one memorable scene, the feckless pair are trying to negotiate their way through rapids. There's a lot of push and pull a la Beckett and it’s not clear who’s saving or drowning whom. The same happens when they try to climb out of a mud pit in which they’ve been forced to hide. There’s also the obvious racial element in the script. Joker is a typical bigot who’s constantly reminding Noah of his place, but the irony is that in the end, when given the chance to escape, he’s totally dependent on his “partner in crime.” He can’t do without him. Spoiler alert. Though they’ve gotten rid of their chains by the end, they aren’t free of either each other or the law. The last lines of Waiting for Godot are famously Vladimir: "Well? Shall we go? Estragon: Yes, let’s go. They do not move." “Everybody winds up alone. Not just you. That’s the way it is,” Joker says. In The Defiant Ones, the human condition is the great leveler, creating a tutorial in equality. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Final Solution: Pharaoh's Dream

In the bible Joseph is summoned to interpret Pharaoh's dream in which the fat and emaciated cows would symbolize 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine. Freud famously wrote The Interpretation of Dreams. The Egyptian leader was no doubt going to a Jewish therapist for help. Maimonides would famously go on to write the The Guide for the Perplexed. But when you think about it Joseph was not just the stereotypic Jewish therapist populating say a Woody Allen movie, but a prototypic financial analyst, a biblical Benjamin Graham, the economist whose The Intelligent Investor, with its theory of value investing was an important influence on Warren Buffett. In fact, he was providing the very kind of predictions that investors have always sought to know. You might say, in this case, it was a form of insider information since it resided in the Pharaoh's unconscious. If there's going to be a scarcity of oil or soybeans, you’re going to want to buy futures. In our current world, of course, there’s a disparity between the machinations of the stock market and the economy. How can one reconcile a spiking pandemic, high unemployment figures and racial unrest with rising prices on Wall Street? Is it not a singularity that deserves some degree of scrutiny when the financial markets are so completely out of the sync with the nature of life as it's being lived by a suffering nation?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Final Solution: The Stages of Despair

There are stages of death as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross pointed out in her landmark On Death and Dying. And there are stages of cognitive development as Piaget described. Then consider the metaphysical food chain beginning with the esthetic and ethical and ending with religious according to Kierkegaard. But what about despair? Are there stages of despair culminating in inconsolability? An enormous global experiment is now being conducted in which the comorbidities of racial injustice and contagion have been driving the barometer to new heights of desperation or lows of hope. There are phyla which exist in eternal darkness such as the creatures who inhabit the Mariana Trench at a depth of over 36,000 feet. But the fact is that survival in such extremes requires a creature to not only be adjusted but thrive under conditions where they are, for example, subject to tremendous water pressure and deprived of light. That's the essence of the Darwinian equation. Some prisoners who have spent lifetimes in institutions like the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana report finding it difficult to adjust to normal life. To survive under repressive conditions, you have to confer a certain normalcy on your predicament, accepting that at least in the present this is how life is. While resistance can be a saving grace, it can also mean death, for those who literally knock their heads up against a brick wall. There may be, in fact, a fine between rebellion and surrender. Those who accept desperation as the status quo sometimes turn out to be the fittests.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Final Solution: Sea of Grass

If you’re not a sexual athlete locked in the throes of an almost Flaubertian chasing of computer generated apparitions by the sheltering-in-place mandates, then you may very well find yourself returning to the old television shows of the 50s and 60s, Lassie, Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie which may better reflect your homebound life. Now that there are no restaurants to go to and if you can afford it, no cleaning personnel, dry cleaners or laundries, you are living the hand-to-mouth existence of the early settlers. Remember Jeff on Lassie and the chores he was expected to do on the farm? Sure the reality was that Jeff probably had his first sexual experience with one of the sheep, with Gramps taking a tumble in the hay in the barn, with a neighbor. But these kinds of shows advertising the myth of life on the great plains were not known for their cinema verité approach. Strangely the rather circumspect world of a television show with its covered wagons, farming and dangerous drunken cowboys or stagecoach robbers (read viruses) neatly encapsulate the very world that many isolated families and individuals are living as they attempt to make ends meet under difficult conditions and with increasingly limited resources. The Lone Ranger is almost a meaningless appellation today since most municipalities are requiring their townsfolk to wear masks. However, whether it was herdsman or farmers (and the antimony between these two elements was dramatized in Sea of Grass, (the l947 the Spencer Tracy/ Katherine Hepburn vehicle), life was often harsh and lonely for those trying persevere in the Old West, much as it is today in the age of coronavirus. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Final Solution: Collapse

Into Thin Air was Jon Krakauer’s recounting of l997 Everest Disaster. Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, later made into film, is another example of the genre dealing with a series of untoward events occurring at the same time. Then there is Jared Diamond's bestselling survey of fallen civilizations, Collapse. What all these works have in common is a dire forecast based upon a number of co-morbidities. The recent ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut which has displaced upwards of 300,000 people, and whose cause is not terrorism, but simple carelessness, is an example of how one tragedy can beget another. The Lebanese economy, already dangerously out of control. set the stage for an unprecedented ecological disaster in a country already torn apart by a history of religious strife. Once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon was in its heyday a banking center, famed for its cosmopolitan society, where French culture and language were part of the affluent life enjoyed by the elite. Parenthetically Lebanon also enjoyed the reputation of being the Sodom in the otherwise sacred landscape of the Middle East, while also being a stronghold of Hezbollah. The United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, but its citizens are banned from travel to EU countries partly by virtue of the failure to produce adequate testing facilities (in England test results are rendered in 90 minutes) that would control the continual spiking of outbreaks. The Roman Empire collapsed in 1000 years. Will the US celebrate it’s 300th anniversary?

Monday, August 17, 2020


Sometimes great historical figures behave like stock characters. Admiration is created by a certain degree of idealization. In the end Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi (1982) can seem both larger than life and closer to superhero status. That’s actually the pleasure of Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall (2017). Chadwick Boseman plays the young Thurgood Marshall and he’s almost typecast as a brilliant and swashbuckling NAACP defender who isn’t all that bad when with his fists when he’s attacked by bigots. Josh Gad who plays Sam Friedman, Marshall’s defense partner in the case of an Afro-American man Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), accused of raping a white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Friedman has a paunch and wears glasses. He's brave but not so good with his hands. When he gathers his family up, you know they’re on their way to the synagogue. His son also wears glasses, as he sits in the back seat of the car. The movie begins with Friedman, an insurance lawyer getting his sleazy client off on a technicality. Can he use his talents in the service of the good? It’s all fairly predictable, but, at the same time, the kind of artifice that’s close to truth. What adds to the enjoyment is the fact that the story is an evidence-based cliffhanger a la Perry Mason. Will the unjustly accused defendant be freed? That’s the courtroom suspense (and it will keep you on the edge of your seat) but it’s a metaphor for the larger drama of Marshall becoming a leading figure in legal defense and jurisprudence and the first Afro-American justice of the Supreme Court.

Friday, August 14, 2020

What Does It All Mean?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel, either because or in the spite of the fact that it bends? One way of looking at the short foot note that defines the span of the average human’s subjectivity is to see the concatenations of human existence as constituting a meaning or  path. The root canal that almost made one faint from pain is a teaching device along with the hyper-scrutiny of an authority figure who may be suffering from a jaundiced view that has little to do with so-called reality. On the other hand, what if nothing makes sense? What if the universe or multiverse is indifferent? What about the cosmic yawn? Smugly self-satisfied individuals suffer from a complex set of delusions that may be confused with self-love. While you may be jealous of shit-eating grins, just realize that many of these so called happy or confident types are like chickens  still running around with their heads cut off.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Final Solution: Rush Hour

Pick some rush hour morning out of your memory. You arise from an uptown 6 exiting at Grand Central and walk across the concourse with its iconic information kiosk facing the lines of ticket windows above which the arrivals and departing schedules of trains to White Plains, New Haven, Hartford and Boston have perennially been listed. Perhaps think way back to the era when Kodachrome dominated the floor. In the days before the pandemic you climbed the stairs to Vanderbilt Avenue passing the Cipriani café, finding yourself swept out into midtown with its caverns of skyscrapers. Hard to image that the place which was once the center of the world is now an empty hulk with huge spires virtually emptied. The city has become a futuristic thriller. Just come out of the Viaduct any morning onto the deserted vista of Park Avenue with its iconic center islands. You've probably never cruised through empty midtown streets like this ever before. Manhattan has always been a 24-hour city and even in the wee hours before dawn there was generally a considerable night population to contend with. Today the buildings whose expensive naming rights were picked up by JP Morgan or Lever have been emptied of life. Long time inhabitants and lovers of the city, who may have vacated at the height of the outbreak, return to find a shell and ask themselves what is there to stay for in the once vibrant city, whose museums, galleries and theaters have all been shuttered?

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Final Solution: C-Day

You may be replaying your worst day best day scenarios. Pandemics have a way of testing the limits. Comorbidity is synonymous with perfect storm and the nature of the illness itself leads to ancillary problems that can easily accelerate a downward spiral. It used to be that you lost your girlfriend, wife or house in the same week or day. Coronavirus is a black hole whose very presence, whether you have it or not, is going to shake most people’s lives to their very core. Now centuries of racial oppression and the conconmitant economic inequality have literally become fatal. Domestic abuse cases have risen all through the weeks and months of the surge, as instability in the job market and isolation wreak havoc on lives. Just as the presence of the dark cloud is enough to make almost every day seem like a mini-Armageddon. Now what are your best days? When you see the chart showing a below 1% infection rate? When you see a flattening of the curve? When you hear that the DPA has been invoked to produce the kind of 90 minute tests that are routine now in England? Remember when life was simpler and your best day occurred when you found a job and an apartment and maybe even love?

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Final Solution: When Freedom is an Achilles' Heel

"Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles Into the River Styx  (Peter Paul Rubens, 1625)
Why has the wall of division grown so big? A year ago, no one would have predicted that the country would find itself in the sorry state evidenced by the recent Times headline, "U.S. Is Alone Among Peers In Failing to Contain Virus," NYT, 8/7/20). Politics hasn’t changed. Trump still has his loyal base. However, what is striking is the degree to which the failed policies and attitudes alluded to in the piece, prevail despite all the suffering. Not only has the upsurge in cases, not resulted in a retrenchment. In some cases, such as that of the behavior of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, it’s led to a syndrome of further resistance to medical realities. Now the municipalities and teachers’ unions in certain counties are on course for a head-on collision with state government. It’s similar to the conflict that mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms has had with the governor Brian Kemp over mandating the wearing of face masks. Even among normally educated liberal voters the attempts to rein in freedoms has run into problems when it comes to a concerted effort to control the pandemic. The notion of individual freedom is such a deep-seeded element of the American character that it’s extremely hard to regulate, Trump or no Trump. In some ways Americans are like perpetual children who don’t like to be told what to do. The Volstead Act led to the roaring 20s. The famous "Schenck" case in which Oliver Wendall Holmes famously employed the example of “crying fire” exemplifies one attempt to point to limitations of freedom. There are numerous constitutional examples which involve the curtailing of freedom. For instance, the Bill of Rights pits the inalienable rights of the individual against those of a potential mob. The very thing that has made America strong is, in fact, its Achilles heel. The fact is in many situations you can’t do what you want. The state has to intercede to protect its citizens from themselves.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Final Solution: An American Family

An American Family
People tell each other stories to ward off fears and also to pass the time during pandemics and storms. That’s the substance of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of l00 tales told by a group of Italians who have recused themselves in the town of Fiesole outside Florence during the plague. Another kind of story telling is taking place in series like Fauda, Babylon Berlin, Mrs. Meisel, Ozark and A French Village which are shown on services like Netflix and Amazon. These tales are not like movies or plays which are one shot affairs. They’re episodes which go on over time and actually mimic life which can sometimes feel like a set of installments. Hopefully an overview emerges in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Back in l973 An American Family took a real family’s life and turned it into a television series. The Louds, who were the subject, had a good deal of drama, but it’s not clear how diverting it would be if someone invented an app which allowed people to see their own life as a TV series. Let’s say someone came up with a device made especially for pandemics, an elaborate selfie that produced a series of seasons. What conventions would it possess and how would the story be wrapped up when say it came to the final episode?

Friday, August 7, 2020


Mesha Stele (Louvre), photo: Henri Sivonen

Religious relics and sites like the Shroud of Turin, Mecca and Jerusalem possess an enormous magnetism even for the secular imagination. The sociologist Max Weber used the term "disenchantment" referring to the force of scientism which removes the ineffable spiritual element from human existence. Bruno Bettleheim wrote an essay, Freud and Man’s Soul addressing  English translations of Freud’s work which attempted to lend credibility to psychoanalysis by increasing scientific terminology at the expense of the sublime. When you were a kid you may have seen the old 30s horror movies in which Oxbridge archeologists incur the wrath of dead Egyptian royalty when they attempt to invade sacred tombs. It’s hard not to see of a statue of Ramesses II or the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut and not feel stirred by a mixture of awe and fear. Will the walls begin to shake? After a parent or loved one has died many people feel the presence of a dead spirit in the room. A flickering lightbulb may be indicative of the presence of the departed. Whether there is one or not, you can safely say the deceased are alive and well in your imagination. You swat a fly or step on an ant. In reality, cremation is no different. The living form disintegrates. Even the bible intones “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Yet something indescribable remains. Bishop Berkeley famously said “esse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived.” For him only God made the world real.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Final Solution: The Marriott International Space Station

This would have been a good time to join the space station for one of those extended stays that tests the limits of the human being’s ability to endure isolation. Everyone else social distancing back down on earth is inadvertently participating in a similar experiment with no payoffs. Just think of spinning in outer space with an addictive Netflix series like Fauda for company. With the comorbidities of racial inequality and coronavirus creating a perfect storm, it might even start to feel cozy up in the station. In addition, perhaps the orbiting traveler will even write a novel in his or her spare time, say with a transfixingly original title like Social Distancing. The Russian Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov chalked up 438 days in the Mir space craft from January l994 to March l995. With all the free time on one’s hands, a spacecraft would make a great writer’s retreat and one where you won’t have to worry about masks, gloves and Purell since there are no supermarket trips to make. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX were both partially founded to cater to the intergalactic blue stocking crowd. While the travel industry might be moribund with many flights canceled and the cruise business dead in the water, what could be a better bet for than Marriott or Sheraton than starting a chain of orbiting space stations for those who want be “far from the madding crowd?”