Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Rise and Fall of the Noman Empire


Nome (photo: Sir Mildred Pierce)

Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Noman Empire has become a classic. The famous historian dealt with Noman architecture and ruins along with emperors and consuls who maintained the rule of law throughout the far flung colonies. There fisherman who were Noman gladiators met in frozen colosseums where they struggled to subdue their catch through holes in the ice. It's been said that Ernest Hemingway got the idea for The Old Man and the Sea when he and other writers left Paris for Nome--where they truly became "The Lost Generation." Those were the days when Nome was a frosty habitat even in the summer months and you had to wear a coat in the Caracalla Baths which were housed in Igloos. That's where the expression "when in Nome, do like the Nomans," derives from. It was in Nome that the comic play, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, was conceived. It was also where Zero Mostel earned his famous nickname, (he was born "Knut," but it never got above zero in Nome).

read "The Promiscuous and the Protean" by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star

and listen to "A Funny Thing Happened on theWay to the Forum" with Zero Mostel

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Should I Get Rapid Tested Before Having a Quickie?


Rapid Antigen Tests (photo: Boldle)

Dear Ethicist: I'm a swinger. My question is this: with the recent spike in infections should I wear a mask when having sex with a stranger or someone not in my pod. The CDC is recommending mask wearing indoors. Does that apply to sex clubs? I realize this is a “loaded” question due to the fact that most foreplay is accomplished by employing the oral cavity on the nether regions of the partner's body. I'm also cisgender and have begun to realize my late-night excursions might infect my binary partner (who chooses to be called "they"), particularly if I’m an asymptomatic carrier. Someone at the sex club on 29th suggested I get a rapid (antigen test) at the Urgent Care on 23rd. At the very least I could always take an at home test whenever I decide to hookup. However, what if I meet someone in a bathroom? There’s instant attraction. Carpe diem is what I always say when it comes to flings. At the same time, I don’t want to let my family, friends and potential partners down. What do you recommend? Are social distancing and promiscuity oxymorons?

read "The Promiscuous and the Protean" by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star

and listen to "Beachwood 4-5789" by the Marvelettes


Monday, May 23, 2022

Mouths Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut is the perfect pandemic movie—since it’s such a creature of fantasy. Dreams can become both vivid and tangled in a period of isolation and social-distancing. But the real title of the sequel could be Mouths Wide Shut since everyone has something to say, particularly if they’re talking to themselves, while being forced to wear a mask. Imagine the famous scene with Tom Cruise in the sex club, only in this case you’d see everyone’s eyes, but not their lips which would have to be covered due to CDC recommendations. The silver lining of the coronavirus has actually been the fact that people shut up. It’s tiring to speak with a mask on and infuriating when you’re on the phone wearing your mask and your significant other is constantly barking “I can’t hear a thing you’re saying” to which you’re forced to remind them, “the mask mandate is again in effect,” with your counterpart countering “I still can’t hear you.” The sex club scene is going to be hard to shoot with the typical N or KN95, since the mouth is an orifice that often comes into play in orgies. On the other hand the human body is resilient and quick to compensate for the loss of one function or another. Anecdotally there have been reports of greater frequency of purely genital sex since January, 2020 when the disease first hit these shores.

Read "Sperm Count: Speaking of Erections" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "Sex Machine" by James Brown


Friday, May 20, 2022

The Duke

Is a charm dead, considering all that’s wrong with the world? Roger Mitchell’s The Duke starring Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton) and James Broadbent (Kempton Bunton) proves that delight can exist. It need not even be condescending, trivial or absurdly unreal. The "real" life story of the ransoming of Goya’s "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” is well-known, but it’s the enchanting and humorous moments of human kindness couched at times in laugh-out-loud humor that sets the movie apart. Certain scenes standout. Amongst them the trial in which the jury convicts the hero for shall we say a lesser offense. Then there’s the one where Bunton is literally stranded out at sea. It’s a wonderful monologue about realizing the universe is  a beneficent place. Is it? The altruist in question is also a playwright who has written about the untimely death of a beloved daughter in a biking accident. Though uneducated, he cites Chekhov’s Three Sisters. You wish he’ll have some luck and that his suffering will not be for nothing, but as in Chekhov, it's not—at least in terms of the publication he seeks. Bunton does, however, become famous and yes the subject of a movie--albeit made long after his death.

read "The Promiscuous and the Protean" by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star

and listen to "Duke of Earl"by Gene Chandler

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Warped Minds Think Alike

Copernicus

Einstein’s theory of relativity states that gravity warps space and time. But what factors can bend a mind? The curvature of time and space might be looked at as a perversion of Euclidian ideas, such as the notion of the shortest distance between two points being a straight line. But what goes on inside the brain? Are paraphilias created by magnetism, from sexual energies detoured by inhibition. Black holes of course tempt oblivion. Step over an event horizon and you descend Eurydice-like into an underworld devoid of light. The Large Hadron Collider creates a force field which gives birth to bosons. Have you ever imagined what it's like in an LHC? Quantum particles can be in two places at the same time. Wouldn't anyone who proposed such an idea at the time of Democritus--who first postulated the existence of the atom, or Lucretius, who wrote De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, one of the first attempts at a unified theory, albeit in poetic form--like Copernicus or Galileo, be accused of heresy?

read "Pornosophy: Addicted to Love," HuffPost

listen to "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Asov Battalion

Asov Battalion logo

As the World Turns was of course the name of a famous soap opera, but it also describes the circulatory nature of history out outlined in particular by Vico. There's the famed Santayana quote with its implication of endemic repetition compulsion, the neural substrate of futurity. The United States was roughly in the equivalent place of Russia back in l975, trying and failing to save face as soldiers died. Now the US has become the knight in shining armor and the Ukraine, a bombed out Camelot. Where and when will the Ukrainian brand of nationalism become branded? The Asov battalion were the holdouts in Mariupol, but they're known to be right wing nationalists;  extremism is effective because of the bonds it creates. Look at the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Look at Arab Spring and where it led. Is Libya better off now that Gaddafi has been rooted out? One of his sons, Said al-Islam, is now running for president. Fernando Marcos’s son, Bongbong, is taking over from Duterte in the Philippines. Certain elements of the periodic table are particularly unstable and prone to bond with others. The same is true of political movements that are infused by charisma. Eventually the sect becomes a church, as Max Weber pointed out. Those who are willing to die for a cause eventually become the problem.

read "The Square" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "Many Rivers to Cross" by Jimmy Cliff


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Love in the Time of Contagion



There are certain buzz words of any particular time. "Bipolarity" is so widely applied that it's become meaningless. "Narcissism" runs a close second with the dilution of the word's meaning being one of the most prevalent symptoms of the malady. "Self-involved" is another candidate for the Meaninglessness Hall of Fame. In
 Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis Laura Kipnis aptly compares the N word to herpes, since by definition narcissists point the finger at each other. It’s the pot calling the kettle black. A sub-category of self-involved people similarly criticizes each other for self-involvement. In a time when social distancing has replaced 6 degrees of separation, there's naturally the danger of drowning in one’s own image—depending on what degree of solitude one's forced to bear. Who else to be involved with than yours truly if the rest of the world has their metaphoric “gone fishing” signs prominently displayed. In prehistoric times, "narcissism" was a useful word. Psychoanalysts talked about “narcissistic grandiosity” to explain outlier behaviors that eschewed consequence and presumed and unearned invulnerability. Dilution is a problem accompanying many terms used to describe mental states. If you grew up in the 50s and 60s when lobotomies were still performed, you heard about friends of your parents who’d had "nervous breakdowns." These unfortunates whose fate was whispered about in hush tones were epitomized by the Olivia De Havilland character in Snake Pit (1948). They ended up being committed to notorious asylums like The Hudson Valley Psychiatric Institution or Wingdale—whose old red brick buildings now house crafts galleries.  The DSM-5 is the most recent edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Jargonistas, who are narcissistically invested in their professional identities (and perhaps analytic neutrality) use it like Escoffier when hosting  terminology parties.

read "Zeno's Conscience" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "Love On a Two Way Street" by The Moments


Monday, May 16, 2022

Capital in the 21st Century and Beyond


NASA/SpaceX

Seven years of famine and seven years of feast is the biblical time line, but it doesn’t always work that way. How to account for the people for whom life's one big feast? What about the compounding of interest or those invest and reinvest accounts which grow bigger and bigger while the rest of the world can't afford to save, period? You see this most clearly with acting. A starring role turns a performer's name into a kind of currency while the rest of the profession languishes with anonymous voice overs that go nowhere. Thomas Piketty has written about the widening disparities of "wealth"  in Capital in the 21st Century, but the same glaring gaps exist in terms of education too. Students attending elite prep schools like Andover or Exeter are literally sent into orbit on graduation where their counterparts in failing school systems are unprepared for anything, but debt. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, no matter what the currency.

read "Wealth" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "Piece of My Heart" by Irma Franklin


Friday, May 13, 2022

Does a Black Hole Get to the Point?


Black Hole at center of the Milky Way (Event Horizon Telescope)

Does a black hole get to the point? The recent observation of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, only 26,000 light years from earth (which would be visible if you were looking in the direction of Sagittarius weren’t for fairy dust) questions the whole notion of a point as coordinate which is the cross section of two lines. Rivka Galchen’s New Yorker essay on Alexander Grothendieck ("The Mysterious Disappearance of a Revolutionary," 5/9/22) deals with a mathematician who sought to define what would seem to be a kind of limit in terms of smallness. Grothendieck is also a subject of Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World. Says Labatut about Grothendieck: "Space was his lifelong obsession. One of his greatest strokes of genius was expanding the notion of the point. Beneath his gaze, the humble dot was no longer a dimensionless position; it swelled with a complex inner structure. Where others had seen a simple locus without depth, size or breadth, Grothendieck saw an entire universe. No one had proposed something so bold since Euclid." However, the very concept of the black hole, with the ultimate compression of matter that passes its event horizon challenges mathematical uncertainties. Previous to the present discovery, scientists were only able to see the black hole at the center of another galaxy, Messier 87. However, the only kind of mathematics that truly describes the black hole would be an infinite progression leading to oblivion, a kind of cosmological version of Zeno’s paradox. 

read "Something Out of Nothing, Nothing Out of Something" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and, talking about black holes, listen to "Pain in My Heart" by Otis Redding



Thursday, May 12, 2022

God Bless America!




landing on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

In
 one fell swoop Vladimir Putin has given birth to a new world order. The US, formerly a colonizer state, the unwanted suitor, 
The Ugly American and even, at times, pariah now has found its services in demand. Finland and Sweden are just two states lining up for admission to NATO, a very American sphere of influence. The unspeakable suffering of a barbaric war has changed the equation of international politics. The Russian Federation is the boisterous braggart arriving drunk and uninvited to the party, while many countries afraid of being run over by lawless autocrats are running into Uncle Sam’s open arms. After the debacle of Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, America’s stock has risen to new highs, along with the credibility of the Biden administration (at least on the international front). Almost 60 years after Vietnam, the image of the United States, on the world stage, has been returned to what it had been on June 6, 1944 when American troops liberated Europe from fascism.

Read "MAGA and the Coronavirus" by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star
 
and listen to "God Bless America" by Lil Wayne


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

La France


Camus (photo: The New Yorker)

It used to be that learned folks would populate their sentences with French phrases. “Faux de mieux,” "for want of something better," was a popular one. The expression was Bovaryesque. Is it really better to end one’s notes “je t'embrace” as is done by those who attend The Odeon, the Tribeca fixture, named after the Paris landmark? There was a period not "entre les deus gueres," but during the 70s and 80s when American chains like McDonalds were invading, bringing with them catchy Americanism which made many members of the prestigious Academie Francaise flinch. In l994 the Toubon Law, aimed at protecting the integrity of the French language, was passed by the Parlement francais. But why are Francophiles more annoying than their counterparts? The answer may rest in the lack of equanimity between the two cultures. America is still a step child to culture and particularly cuisine;  French babies are bottle fed Pouilly Fuisse. The French even possess a signature form of kissing. And let’s talk about French writers and politicans. Would you rather be Camus or Hemingway, Bernard Henri-Levy or Bob Woodward? In the latter case probably Bob Woodward since he’s sold more books. Remember the elegant SS France, decommissioned in l936? 

read "Diasporic Dining: A Comparison Between Bouley and Lunetta" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and watch the animation of Erotomania


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

With Liberty and Termination With Extreme Prejudice For All


2016 was a watershed in human history. It was the moment, beginning with the Trump presidency, when humanistic people, opposed to the death penalty, wished their opponents would drop dead. It started with Donald Trump and Retrumplicanism itself and then fanned out to the former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo who glibly responded “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” when asked by a Fox reporter if the State Department would work with Biden on the transfer of power. Once you cross the line, murder is no longer an obstacle. There's a serial killer in all of us. Should Vladimir Putin be hung in public like Mussolini? Should he be administered a dose of Novichok, the poison used in the attempt to assassinate Navalny? Murderous feelings are like the BA2 form of Covid-19, ie highly contagious. Naturally neither Marjorie Taylor Greene, who sees free speech as the right to stalk Parkland survivor David Hogg, nor her two partners in crime, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert would elicit much sympathy amongst many death penalty foes if they were to use an old CIA expression “terminated with extreme prejudice.” Is this a sad commentary? There once was a time when civilized debate was a sacred and joyous activity. Kellyanne Conway’s husband George, a Lincoln Project, a conservative anti-Trump Super Pac, was the kind of person with whom a progressive might enjoy civilized discourse. Ditto William Cohen, a former Republican senator and congressman who was Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton. You didn’t have fantasies about killing Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was Republican governor of California. Nixon, maybe. What happened? 

read "The First Law of Emotional Thermodynamics: Longing is Directly Proportional to Self-Hatred" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "(I'm) a Roadrunner" by Junior Walker & The All Stars


Monday, May 9, 2022

Invisible Men




Franz Kafka (1923)

There are two invisible men in modern lit. One was written by H.G. Wells and the other Ralph Ellison, the latter bearing comparison to Dostoevsky’s
 Underground Man. Of course, there are the Kerbys and Nell, their St Bernard who are the poltergeists haunting Cosmo Topper’s digs and then Nicholson Baker's Fermata in which the protagonist possesses the ability to stop action in order to literally “penetrate” all those in sight. Akaky Akakievich of Gogol’s Overcoat is an invisible person as are the father and son hopelessly trying to retrieve a bicycle, in the post war Italy of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In both the individual is lost in the crowd and rendered even more helpless by an indifferent bureaucracy. There are, of course, anonymous donors and those who wish to be invisible either due to paranoia or because of a delusive and narcissistic grandiosity in which absence itself becomes a form of attention getting. Under this theory the best way to work the system is to exacerbate the human condition and let oneself fall into the black hole of social oblivion. In fact, isn’t this one way to describe the phenomenon of how a withdrawn writer like Kafka achieved fame. Yes, Max Brod had something to do with it, but a certain degree of talent and elusiveness can be a potent cocktail.

Read "Joseph K. or Your Average Joe?" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and watch the animation of Erotomania

Friday, May 6, 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

The actor doth protest too much is what one ends up thinking after seeing The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Instead of citing Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tom Gormican, who directed, might have added Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nicholas Cage. The plot, in short, has Cage, hard up on his luck, in the employ of the CIA, after accepting a one million fee from a Majorcan arms dealer Javi (Pedro Pascal) whose cinematic ambitions run afoul of his involvement in organized crime. The film employs a youthful Nicolas Cage doppleganger (Nicky), who's constantly involved in turf battles over who controls the actor’s imagination. The movie includes the kidnapping of Cage's film daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) along with Cage’s fictional recently divorced wife (Sharon Henson) together with the wife who appears in the Pirandellian film within the film (Demi Moore). One wonders if there wasn't a little bit of the impulse to reinvigorate a flagging career in Fellini's  to which The Unbearable Weight  bears no resemblance. Ultimately the parody here is a thinly veiled attempt to do what the movie is making fun of, light Cage’s fire, invoking  Face/Off, Moonstruck and other of the actor's classics of the past. Good luck. 

read "The Dance of Reality" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to  theme by Nino Rota



Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Geography of War


War is one way to learn geography. Think of Antietem, Sarajevo and Srebrenica. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, which has its share of battles, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise are places with correlates in the real world, at least with regard to sin and salvation. Mount Olympus was the home of the Greek Gods who often wreaked havoc on earth. Remember Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda? Troy is, of course, a city in upstate New York, along with Rome, Ithaca and Syracuse--all the legacy of antiquity. Before the current war, Ukraine was often regarded as a stepchild of the old U.S.S.R. If you read Chekhov’s Lady With a Dog, you were familiar with Yalta in the Crimea. Isaac Babel wrote Odessa Stories. Parts of Ukraine, along with Lithuania and Russia comprised The Pale of Settlement, where Jews were allowed to live in Czarist times. The embattled capital recently the site of an important victory for Ukraine was known primarily for a dish, Chicken Kiev, which was something that you ordered in "Russian" restaurants. Now the idea of a Russian restaurant serving Chicken Kiev would be sacrilege. Mariupol, where civilians and soldiers are now holding out in a steel factory, was unknown to most Americans, though Chernobyl, made famous for the fire in its number 4 reactor in l986, is a living jeremiad about the dangers of nuclear energy. Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine has become a destination point due to its proximity to the Polish border. Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, in the Northeast, wasn’t known to average Americans until the recent bombings. Kherson, in the South is the first major city to have fallen to the Russians.

Read "A Taxonomy of The Goldfinch" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "25 Miles From Home"by Edwin Starr

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Dear Ethicist: Should I Be Proactive In Avoiding Being Accused of Schadenfreude?


Dear Ethicist: Am I required to save someone I don’t like? Let’s say I see a drowning person, flailing wildly. I may have my Red Cross JLS, SLS or even Instructor's patch, but I'm still putting myself in harm's way since drowning people tend to panic. If you remember the method is not to go right at them but to dive under water and turn them around by cupping your hand in back of their ankles.Then you surface, placing your hand under their chin. But that doesn’t solve the problem. Unless I’m employed as a lifeguard I am not legally required to do anything. In addition, the drowning person is usually someone who takes chances. Why did they swim so far out or fail to heed the rip tide? Why should you pay? But leaving that aside, we all have our likes and dislikes.There are people we would risk our lives for, those we wouldn’t and yet another class who we wish dead. So it turns out I’m asking another question. If I don’t overcompensate for my feelings and risk my life to rescue someone I hate, am I in danger of being accused of schadenfreude or the enjoyment of other people’s suffering? Should I feel personally responsible if I see someone I don't like crying "help" and do nothing about it, even as they drown?

read "What is Philanthropy?" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "It's Your Thing"by The Isley Brothers

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Russian v Ukraine: Knockout or Draw?

Vitali Kitschko (photo: Sven Teschke)

The Russians took a good beating in Afghanistan, but so did the British before them and later the Americans. And the Russians obviously place their current incursion in Ukraine under the rubric of “border patrol.” The way you phrase an invasion these days is to claim you’re being invaded. It’s The Big Lie turned from voter tabulation to geography. This kind of behavior is fueled and given credence to by a certain degree of paranoia. The eradication of Nazi elements has been one of Putin’s stated objectives.The Newspeak is "special military operation.” The radical right including commentators like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham has allied itself with one of the world’s leading autocrats. Euphemisms like "special operation" are the preferred figure of speech. The difference between Afghanistan and Ukraine is obviously terrain. A mountainous rural landscape provides better cover for guerilla fighters. Still like with Afghanistan, the danger is not in one side winning or not. It’s institutionalized war. The US occupation of Afghanistan went on for 20 years and that of the Russians for 10. It cost the US $2.3 trillion, creating a path of destruction and casualties on both sides. NATO's commitment is too big to fail. Still Russia is ten times the size of Ukraine, its population is 144 million as compared to Ukraine’s 44. Soldiers can always be conscripted. On the other hand, the mayor of Kiev is Vitali Klitschko, a former heavy weight champ. You don't want to tangle with him.

read "Diasporic Dining: Letting People Know What They're Worth" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "(I'm a) Roadrunner" by Junior Walker & the Allstars

Monday, May 2, 2022

A Crime of Passion?


Is Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine a crime of passion? Certainly, the Russian president cannot be accused of premeditated murder. If he’s ever brought to trial in the Hague, the charge would have to be manslaughter since he apparently didn't grasp the consequences of his behavior? In one decisive moment he succeeded in making Russia a rogue nation, an outlier state on par with North Korea while killing its economy, committing genocide and bringing about the very thing he feared the most, i.e. encroachment by NATO. Finland and Sweden, have both applied for membership and will likely be admitted. For the first time in 200 years, Switzerland broke its neutrality in the face of a Russian land grab that appeared to have far-reaching implications not only for Ukraine but all the nations in the former U.S.S.R. Spurned lovers can become murderers.The case of Putin is more occasioned by the aftermath of Glasnost and Perestroika when the Berlin Wall fell and the former Soviet Union was dissolved, along with a dream of an Imperial Russia going back to Peter the Great. Should Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons be taken seriously? Any rational leader would recognize the horrors deriving from such a no-win situation. But it’s difficult nigh impossible to appeal to reason, when a crazed individual is about to pull the trigger. Remember the senseless death of Baron Tuzenbach at the hands of the disaffected soldier, the perversely romantic Solyony, in The Three Sisters?

Read "A Murder in Forest Hills" by Francis Levy, TheScreamingPope

and listen "Reason to Believe" by Tim Hardin