Thursday, October 22, 2020

Enough to Turn You Crimson

If you manage to get into Harvard and then go to Harvard Law School and from then on, The New Yorker and CNN, can you do anything you want? Are you like Caligula? That’s the question being scrutinized by The Cambridge (England) Union. Of course, the real issue derives in psychobabese from “narcissistic grandiosity.” In words that any Harvard graduate can understand, this means you develop the notion you can masturbate in front of prominent women colleagues on Zoom. The idea may insinuate itself as the germ of titillating temptation until it becomes a downright obsession, convincing yourself nothing untoward is happening anyway, since your video and audio functions are off (when, in fact, they're not). However, wouldn’t this action qualify as an old-fashioned Freudian slip? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but most of the time a cigar is a penis.

 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A Woman Under the Influence



There's a famous line in Long Day’s Journey when Mary Tyrone walks in with her wedding gown and her son, Jamie mockingly intones, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!" That might describe Gena Rowland's performance as Mabel Longhetti in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (l974). The movie is, of course, like catnip for any actor. Rowlands makes the most of a plum opportunity for virtuosity, playing up her character’s boundary problems by sexualizing her encounters with every stranger she meets. The depiction of this kind of free-floating hysteria is not unrealistic. However, there’s a sense that in eschewing the normal constraints of the commercial cinema with it’s well scripted encounters, for the handheld camera and natural lighting the film somehow errs, becoming unrealistic and even histrionic in its search for realism. Peter Falk plays the part of the harried husband Nick and there’s one really telling moment at the end when he attempts to bully his wife into becoming sane, by threatening to throw her to the floor when she doesn’t come down from a couch. Besides Bo Harwood's score, the   film employs Italian opera that improbably comes out of almost everyone’s mouth; at least two of the members of Nick’s construction crew are tenors of note. The arias are highly romantic and soaring yet they’re a markedly dissonant considering the psychological deterioration that's taking place. This is a clever piece of artifice that unfortunately, like many of the director’s gambits, ends up calling more attention to itself than the world it aims to portray.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Final Solution: The Red Zone


Will the US become like Germany after the war? Will the country be partitioned into Red and Blue zones? It’s apparent that there will be no peaceful transition. Even if the movers come and Trump leaves The White House, you’re going to have a reluctant leader in exile, carrying on the duties for his base and a growing subculture of QAnon followers.Trump's wall with Mexico will be expanded. It'll become like the famed Berlin Wall, which effectively divided a country. Trump's media empire will make Breitbart under Steve Bannon look sick. Imagine whole networks of television and radio funded by the Koch Brothers with Sinclair Broadcasting and Fox piping out varying kinds of right wing propaganda.Trump Inc. will become the ultimate reality TV show, something so all encompassing that it actually becomes like the Holographic level of Star Trek. It will be a Second Coming of sorts, Trump will descend as a new savior. He won’t need to rush to appoint Supreme Court justices since his words will be worshipped as the rule of law in those lands under his control. The coronavirus is known to have an impact on the brain, but whatever the cause, the President’s bout with the malady has obviously exacerbated all the traits which had been evident all along—amongst them a linguistic perseveration in his attack on scientific evidence. For the first time in their histories both The New England Journal of Medicine and Scientific American featured editorials alternately condemning Trump and endorsing Biden. When you read in Genesis that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th, you generally treat it as metaphor and poetry, though there are obviously fundamentalists who read the bible as literally as the originalists do the constitution. No one in the Red Zone is going to take the former president’s words with a grain of salt.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Final Solution: Mr. Creosote


Kellyanne Conway (photo: Gage Skidmore)

The paranormal has become the new normal. One supposes people and even countries will begin to paranormalize after the pandemic is so-called over, if that ever takes place. But part of the current cultural norm is an increase in logorrhea or paradigm shifting. Trump is one of the great deconstructionists and would have probably have buddied up with Derrida on the issue that everything is culturally created. It’s easy to call something “fake news” when it’s the product of say CNN headquarters in Atlanta. So QAnon might be a dangerous cult, but maybe not. He hears they don’t like pedophiles. However the logorrhea is really at the heart of the current paranormality. Lara Trump is the wife of Eric. She appeared as a kind of pinch hitter (since apparently no other members of the clan agreed to come on) to answer Jake Tapper’s questions on State of the Union Sunday morning. Plainly Lara had studied at the Kellyanne Conway school of rhetoric. Conway notoriously suffers from diarrhea of the mouth which makes it virtually impossible for her to stop talking. It’s not her fault or for that matter her protégé Lara’s. Their Russian handlers have given them verbal laxatives which make them run off at the mouth. Remember the Monty Python "Mr. Creosote" skit? Jake Tapper seemed irate when he tried to get a word in edgewise, but he should have been more tolerant considering the problems of his interview subject. For the record, Donald Trump is one of the great paradigm shifters. You may remember the term from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s unlikely that Trump has ever read it, but uncanny that he's able to perfectly paradigm shift anytime anyone asks him a question like: Did you get COVID tested on the day of the first debate?

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Final Solution: Conscience


 
David Garrick as Hamlet seeng the Ghost

There are two types of behaviors that are exuded by the president, one is smug self-satisfaction that is part of his PR message. Every experience even COVID is turned into a major triumph. Then comes the destructive part. He does what he wants which in this case means going prematurely back to work and putting others including staff members and secret service agents in danger. It would be wonderful to think that Trump was an exception, but you probably know plenty of people who behave exactly this way, trumpeting their latest victories while barely heeding the damage they inflict as they go about the pursuit of their pleasures. What's the missing component in those who demonstrate these kind of characteristics? The answer is, conscience. It’s not hard to understand how the absence of this trait can lead to success in the world. Have you ever met a successful Lothario who's known for his conscience? Hamlet, the literary figure most famous for having an overactive superego, has enough trouble just dealing with one girl. Hamlet is also different than Trump in that he lacks bravado. “Thus, conscience doth makes cowards of us all.” Hamlet does his share of damage but would he have risked infecting, his friend and protector, Horatio by making an appearance in an SUV? Still what's disconcerting is that pathological personalities proceed along their merry way showing little concern about the wreckage left in their wake. What's the toll of those infected and what's the extent of their illness from having attending the Rose Garden or Bedminster fundraising events?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Tyson vs. Trump

Mike Tyson is scheduled to fence off with Roy Jones Jr. at the Dignity Health Park in Carson, California on November 28th. And then there's Trump vs. Biden. Who knows if the bout between the incumbent president and the challenger will be decided by then, seeing that there are upwards of 300 million judges, with the possibility that the 9 judges of the Supreme Court will eventually be called upon if there’s a “split decision.” Trump vs. Biden might have made a good undercard considering all the shenanigans perpetrated by The White House which at least on the basis of the first debate enjoys hitting below the belt, with the Republican office holder who currently possesses the heavyweight belt (if for no other reason than the fact that he’s obese) refusing to go back into his corner and let the Democratic challenger speak. One of Trumpty Dumpty’s other tactics is to put words in his opponent’s mouth in an attempt to win by suffocation. What a wonderful coincidence if the election were finally settled on the day of the Tyson/Jones fight! However, from what the president is indicating the only way to get him out of the ring will be by way of knockout. As Iron Mike himself once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

My Octopus Teacher

Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s My Octopus Teacher deals with a beloved mollusk that diners in Italian restaurants often confuse with calamari.The movie seeks to disabuse viewers of the notion they might have had that octopuses are unlikely pets. Craig Foster who produced the film is also the star along with the putative octopus and his son, who plays a cameo. No doubt it’s amazing to see an octopus using its 200 suction cups to grasp onto its new friend, though one does wonder if the film is not being a bit pollyannish. Does the octopus see Foster as a friend or potential meal? Indeed, some parts of the film seem contrived. Foster uses only a snorkel to make his dives, yet the octopus is shown in long periods of repose and the romanticizing of the creature’s “invertebrate intelligence” brings to mind a famous Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man,” in which the motives behind an alien creatures seeming friendliness are revealed by a cook book entitled To Serve Man. Foster is shocked and saddened when one of the octopus's tentacles are bitten off by a pyjama shark and he’s amazed to see natural selection at work as his friend uses ingenious ploys in its struggle to survive. In his next film Foster should consider taking his snorkel to the Galapagos where he can trace his mentor’s footsteps.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Tivoli Journal: Ferncliff Forest


fire tower in Ferncliff Forest (photo: F. Levy)

Ferncliff Forest in Rhinebeck, one of the grand old preserved pieces of nature in the Hudson Valley, has a fire tower at the top of its trail. When you stare up it’s like looking into a majestic spider’s web. It also exudes a bit of the sublime to the extent that you may see giant trees falling even as you meander in the otherwise peaceful surroundings. They tumble effortlessly and without danger to anyone, but the grounds are littered with fallen trees which have been the victims of one or another infestation of creatures like the Southern pine beetle. You might say that Ferncliff is a forested version of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey--a church of nature with its own forested ruins. You can take a two mile hike past an algae covered pond and then finally return to the starting point whose pond in autumn reflects a dazzling supernova of seasonal colors.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Tivoli Journal: Defining Quaintness


photo (Francis Levy)

The town of Tivoli in upstate New York down the road from Red Hook and Rhinebeck gives new meaning to the word “quaint.” Actually quaintness is a labile concept, an architectural and historical sensibility that germinates partially out of geography and partly from the demographic that inhabits it. The brand of quaintness which Tivoli exudes is eccentric in and of itself. A water tower with the name of the town hangs like a deity over the chapel of the local church and across the street is the Watts de Peyster Fireman’s Hall. The red brick structure is part of the National Register of Historic Places and the Hudson River Historic District and it contributes another layer to the charm with the Dutch sounding name of the l9th century village president after whom it is named.These strata make themselves visible to those who cultivate a sensibility. On one side of the hall is a green and gold painted sign which reads “Village of Tivoli, Offices, Library.” On the other side, is a similarly painted sign which reads, “Tivoli Free Library” and below that “Justice Court.” Talk about multi-use. Stop off at Fortunes, the ice cream parlor whose mint ice cream exudes the taste of a real herb. As you leave town, there’s a steep incline past the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, a 153 acre dancer's retreat. From there the main thoroughfare, "quaintly" named Broadway, makes a steep incline to railroad tracks where on a recent Saturday an Amtrak train zoomed by, then giving way to a majestic view of the Hudson.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Fly in the Ointment




You may have noticed the fly in Mike Pence’s hair during the debate. At first you might have thought it was a piece of dirt on your screen, but when you got up to clean it off, you quickly realized it was an insect, in fact a rather insistent one that apparently got into the Vice President’s hair and possibly his craw. However, have you ever seen a fly that stayed in one place, particularly on a nationally televised broadcast. It was either a stoic fly or perhaps it was just a bug ie a Russian hacker (modeled after Kafka's Gregor Samsa) who was outed. It’s interesting that the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today who did an otherwise competent job didn’t try to get the Committee on Presidential Debates staff to bring in an exterminator. What’s even more interesting was that even though Kamala Harris has a larger head of hair there was no wildlife taking advantage of her plumage. What was actually going on will probably never be ascertained. “Out, damned spot!” cries Lady McBeth, but interestingly the Vice President didn’t appear to know what was happening and before the Secret Service could get to it, the dark presence was gone

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Der Infuriated


King Lear and the Fool in the storm, (Ary Sheffer, 1834)

There is an almost Shakespearean quality to the picture of Trump alone in The White House on the way to making his gallant return to the Oval Office--regardless of how many staff members are infected. It’s been reported that special PPEs and isolation carts were prepared in the event the president got his wish and insisted on serving his country willy-nilly no matter how many people would be endangered in the process. Here's the president of the United States, but deadly, and untouchable. No matter how much you may hate him, there’s indeed something ineluctably grand about this. It’s a noxious cocktail of Lear, Iago (remember Coleridge's "motiveless Malignity"), Macbeth, Richard III ("a horse, a horse, Trump Tower for a horse"),  Falstaff and Milton’s Satan. Trump is a mixture of Humpty Dumpty and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Literally no one has ever thrown a presidential tantrum like this, at least on American soil. In terms of political theater Trump is right up there with Mussolini and Hitler who also famously had their bases rooting them on as they pillaged and plundered. Wonder what Der Fuhrer would have tweeted? In fact, Trump’s current situation is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s last days in the bunker. Actually Trump was led into underground White House bunker during the summer Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dr. Kildare on COVID-19

Quarantine, oxygenation, antigen, antibody, incubation, contact tracing, PCR and PPG have all become the lingua franca of everyday discourse. Household kitchens have begun to sound like emergency rooms. Trump notoriously opined about Hydroxychloroquine and bleach and even elementary school students know about the regimen of Remdesivir that was administered to the president at Walter Reade. Everyone has a different opinion about the meaning of "social distancing." Some have used the occasion of the pandemic to recuse themselves in silent retreat while others have taken an astronomical view of the term, insisting on looking at their friends at a distance of 25 feet when they’re not getting together for dinner over Zoom. Then there's the old “free love” crowd who travel everywhere and do everything and look at "social distancing" as simply occupying an aisle seat on the plane. Their masks are always falling below their noses so they can be sure that the aerosols which don’t make it out of their mouths have somewhere to go. This is not a time for oratory since an impassioned speaker is likely to infect you. The quiet silent type, like the character Clint Eastwood played in Dirty Harry is probably the best bet if you have to be in the vicinity of someone who isn’t wearing a mask. One wonders what old-fashioned TV icons like Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey would have said about all this?

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Final Solution: Easy Rider


It is very hard to tell another person what to do. If it is someone close to you, they'll feel you're being controlling, even when the advice is merited. If it is a stranger, it is going to be deemed none of your business. And reasoning doesn’t help. Daniel Kahneman in books like Thinking Fast and Slow has demonstrated that emotion can triumph over reason in basic decision making. During the current pandemic there's been violent pushback by some people when they’re told to wear masks, even in stores where there are signs up warning that a mask is required for entry. Americans in particular prize their independence and often buckle when told to buckle their seatbelts, even though they may be perfectly aware of the consequences. If the coronavirus is carried by aerosols as well as droplets, there’s good evidence to support the idea that a face covering will protect others as well as yourself and yet, despite tipping his hat to the need for masks, the president has repeatedly averred that there’s some degree of choice involved. It’s apparently a badge of honor to do without one at certain gatherings. Perhaps now that he's been felled by the virus, he will come to his senses.  It’s estimated that the Sturgis motorcycle rally left 250,000 new cases of coronavirus in its aftermath ("250,000 COVID-19 infections from Sturgis? 'Made up numbers' S.D governor says," NBC, 9/9/20). What will be the tally after last week's gathering in the Rose Garden?  Driving a Harley on the open road is one of the great symbols of the freedom. Remember Easy Rider? Even the most rational of individuals who are not QAnon conspiracy believers and who buy the science still get sloppy when it comes to following guidelines like maintaining social distance. They want to see their friends and earn a few bucks and even find love—all of which would make a lot of sense if there wasn’t a pandemic that’s already killed upwards of 200,000 Americans which is a greater figure than all the Viet Nam War, the War in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War, the Korean War and the war Iraq combined ("200,00 people have died from Covid-19 in the U.S. That's more than than the U.S. battle deaths from 5 wars combined,CNN, 9/22/20)

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Final Solution: Schadenfreude



Trump reporting incomes hitting record high in 2019 and poverty record low

The recent rash of COVID-19 infections at The White House brings and odd mixture of responses. If you’re a Trump hater, who thinks the president is guilty of crimes against humanity, you might exult. The disease is a punishment, perhaps even from on high. However, such wishes are often filled with feelings of remorse and also fear. Bad thoughts breed retribution. Actually, the subject at hand is the psychoanalytic term Schadenfreude, or the enjoyment of someone else’s suffering. If you hate another person you may wish the worst for them, but an ensuing feeling of guilt can, in fact, result in self-undoing. If you heard the news on Friday evening, you may have gone to bed thrilled that the supreme court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett might be derailed (particularly if other Republicans were infected) only to wake up feeling a ticklishness in your throat which was a sign that you'd contracted the dreaded virus. When you start wishing ill and lobbing fantasies like projectiles, you may be afraid that it’s a little like Dr. Strangelove where a misstep on one side leads to Armageddon. Trump has seemed implacable, a juggernaut that simply dismisses almost all information he doesn’t agree with as "fake news." He's like the minotaur in his labyrinth, creating a series of perennial detours just when he's about to get in hot water (though you might not have guessed that his coming down with COVID would provide the distraction from the matter of his taxes). He inspires rage, but caveat emptor less your own anger comes back at you.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Final Solution: Dog Eat Dog

frontispiece for the Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

Utilitarianism basically argues that actions are good if they bring about happiness. More cynical is the Hobbesian notion that men are out for themselves and that it's the job of government to prescribe certain appetites. Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism argued that human life, like that of the animal world, is a survival of the fittest, a struggle that leads to the evolution of the species by way of natural selection. There's something cynical, self-justifying and untrue about the Social Darwinist paradigm which essentially argues for unbridled indivdualism. What differentiates man from his ancestors in the animal world is precisely an evolutionary process which brought about language and consciousness both. Empathy and altruism are just two products of a more developed brain, but they considerably modify the palette. Further, human beings are not simply prehensile toolmakers. They've learned to defer the satisfaction of pleasure and ultimately to see the virtues of cooperative activity. Self-interest is the philosophy that motivates Trump’s base. The recent Times investigative report on the president's taxes is not likely to have any effect on this demographic that believes in Looking Out for Number #1 philosophy of life. The more brazen Trump becomes in resisting the notion of democracy and a peaceful transition, the more his followers exult. It’s all like Fight Club or one of those illegal cock fights in which the winner emerges with the opponent lying dead in a pool of blood.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Final Solution: Debatable





Do you find yourself looking at life as a succession of events which have to be gotten over with? It’s a dangerous way to live for the simple reason that the minute one sickening challenge is over and you think you’re on the open road, you’re likely to face the disappointing fact that something new is about to propose itself. There seems to be no time in which you’re ever allowed to lie back and relax. The problem with this way of thinking may reside in the fact of initially wanting to postpone the feeling that you're alive to another day, month or year. The fact is, as odious as anything is, it’s all you really have. Many people watching the Trump Biden debate  couldn’t believe their eyes. There was the feeling that they’d been cheated into watching something that was not only a waste of time but also exhausting, dispiriting and enervating. Some may have even felt like giving up. Debates are usually places where you have the opportunity to see the human spirit soar. Hearing a gifted orator like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama provides an endorphin rush. You often find the cadences of their words infusing your speech. The first Trump Biden debate was a little like something out of childhood. Remember when the horizonal or vertical bar would interrupt your viewing of the TV and you’d have to wait for the television repair man (a now obsolescent profession in the age of cheap flat screen TVs). The experience of the debate was also like that of static interference, where you can’t hear due to background noise. Adaptation is the name of the game. Rather than waiting for the atmosphere to clear, you’ve got to find a means of embracing the discomfort. It’s a little like the experience of a new art form in which the expected catharsis is slow in coming.