Thursday, December 31, 2009


Every red blooded American boy needs to experience dispossession. It’s what makes America great and it’s what creates the dynamic quality of American life, to the extent that this country has no real hereditary aristocracy (as De Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America). The downstairs of one generation can become master of the house in the next. Joseph Losey’s The Servant (with screenplay by Harold Pinter) brilliantly captured the potentiality for such role reversals in the British context. In America, Raymond Carver was the poet of dispossession. Latter-day incarnations, like the short-story writer Wells Tower, whose work has received a great deal of critical attention, wear dispossession on their sleeves, but Carver exuded what Henry James called “felt life.” In one famous passage, a garage sale becomes an emblematic act of self-revelatory excoriation.
After the stock market crash of l929, many of the entitled saw their fortunes fade, and more recently many great families who had invested in blue-chip firms like Lehman Brothers saw their fortunes turn sour overnight. There are undoubtedly support groups for super wealthy individuals whose net worth dropped from hundreds to tens of millions in the market turmoil. What would it be like without Aspen and Palm Beach, without the Connaught and the Hotel du Cap, without Gstaad and Cortina in the winter? Everything in America occurs at such breakneck speed that there is really no time to accommodate a leisure class. By the time one generation has accumulated enough wealth to live like royalty, the wealth is already gone and they are writing memoirs, or, like the Beales of Grey Gardens fame, they're the subjects of documentaries about the decline of yet another age of swells.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Price Was Right

Photography by Hallie Cohen

Sol Price died on Monday, December 16, 2009, at the age of 93, according to the Times obit. Price was the founder of Price Club, which was the model for the likes of BJ’s, Sam’s Club, and Costco. As the Times explained, “The Price Club philosophy was simple: Keep overhead to an absolute minimum.” In Restoration comedy, playwrights like William Wycherely often named characters after a particular personality trait, so you might have a Widow Selfish or a Sir Mannerly Shallow. Coming of age in an era in which Americans delighted in television shows like The Price is Right, Mr. Price’s defining trait was  an obsessive preoccupation with merchandising. There was no doubt that Price was ahead of his time when he created the first Price Club in l976. Until that time, shoppers were limited to chains like A&P, Gristedes, and Grand Union, which had lots of employees but comparatively little space. Price’s innovation came in creating environments modeled on airplane hangars.

As it happened, the rise of the discount club coincided with the widespread shuttering of  mental institutions, a turn of events that would allow fledgling discount clubs to occupy the freshly vacated residences of mental patients, while providing a home for a new breed of reality-challenged individuals . Whether discount super-marketing ended up taking advantage of this connection to mental illness is something for historians to judge. Suffice to say, these large discount clubs have become home to a wide variety of shoppers scouting for bargains on food and home-making products . They sometimes include pre-op transsexual prostitutes, who take time out from turning tricks in out-of-the-way industrial parks to stock up on large quantities of toilet paper and Crisco. Mr. Price lived to see the fulfillment of his dream of an America no longer plagued with bodegas, specialty stores, and quaint little boutiques.  The Price Club formula certainly has legs, and allowed Mr. Price to live up to the promise of his name.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Rubber Band

Cruisin’ east on 495 to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

Is resistance the only means by which the forces of inertia are overcome? Is it like a rubber band, which must be held in place against a countervailing pull in order to produce force? Without resistance, the human project fails. Caligula refused to resist his desires, and ended up exemplifying the corruption destroyed the Roman Empire. All the jokes about women saying no to sex recapitulate the history of the demiurge, as well as Newton’s Third Law of Motion—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Is it the tendency of all matter, including inanimate objects, to differentiate? If there is a higher order of being, would it necessarily occupy itself with the condition of man? That would require too many calls to the field. The circuits would burn out. The switchboard would close down. And then there is the desperate motif of Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”: pleading is not believing.
News reports that there is water on the dark side of the moon give hope to residents of the New York metropolitan area whose urban ambitions have been thwarted by skyrocketing rents in the once inexpensive outer boroughs. The moon will be Australia, and a whole new class of convicts will give birth to the Nicole Kidmans of tomorrow. But what will it be called—Up Above as opposed to Down Under? And who will be the Crocodile Dundee of the moon? The moon will beget its own problems, its own vacation resorts, where pleasure is disappointed, and its own universe of therapy, including the lunar hour, roughly equivalent to 45 minutes.
There may be "no second acts in American lives," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, but the English writer Penelope Fitrzgerald embarked on her estimable oeuvre at age 58.

Dreaming about Luciano Pavarotti singing James Brown Live at the Met.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

War of the Worlds

Lingua Franca and Social Text, Hagler and Hearns, Nixon and Kennedy, Plato and Aristotole, Coleridge and Wordsworth, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, Heraclitus and Zeno, light and dark, hot and cold—marriage in general. Whereas one commentator on the institution once said seemingly oppositional partners displace onto each other desirable attributes, such as reserve or gregariousness, it’s unfortunate that so many people grow to hate the differences they once loved, admired, and envied.

Hegel’s philosophy of history was based on the idea of opposition. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis were the terms he used. In modern terms, Walmart and Amazon go to war and give birth to a new discount giant. What will be the synthesis of these two oppositional elements—Walzon? In the Enlightenment, the pessimism about human nature posited by Hobbes and the clearly idealistic vision of man portrayed by Locke coalesce in the framing of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights—checks and balances, the inalienable rights of the individual in the face of the democratic rule of the majority, all are products of two opposing views of human nature.
In the 20th century, communism lost out to capitalism, but historical progression created the curiosities of elites within the Politburo and the decline of class in the mercantile structure. But what are the new warring forces of our present age? Fundamentalism (in both its religious and political incarnations) versus globalism, literal versus abstract, uni- versus cyber-verse, e-mail versus snail mail (no contest). Then there are the oppositions that are still-born, like pre-op transsexuals who maintain both female and male gonads without fusing into a new creature.

Naturally those who analyze the market seek to discover the answer to such oppositions on a daily basis, considering that profits lie in the secrets of mergers and acquisitions. Will Citicorp continue as an unruly giant, or will it be forced to sell some of its divisions? Google has already triumphed over Yahoo, but will an emboldened adversary come to the fore, developing a new service called Houyhnhnm? Big- and small-world theories, special and general, relativity, quantum, and string—the war of the worlds continues.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hallelujah Chorus

It is hard to tell the difference between delusional psychotics who walk around the streets talking to themselves, and the owners of cutting-edge cellular devices that enable them to talk and gesticulate wildly while holding nothing in their hands. Some cellular devices actually look like big earrings worn by stranded followers of Joan Baez or the growing hordes of self-mutilators, who pierce their earlobes, tongues, noses, and even gonads as they reach towards new heights of invulnerability. Add to this methadone addicts who suffer from an inability to modulate their voice levels and we have the beginnings of a new version of the Hallelujah chorus.
The literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote a wonderful, Proustian book about New York called A Walker in the City during the fifties, when heroin rather than methadone radiated from the cool longing of Billie Holiday’s voice. Kazin probably didn’t live long enough to own a cell phone, so he may never have faced the conundrum of what to do when confronted on the street with errant bits of conversation flying like bullets at a drive-by shooting.  What’s a fellow to do in response to words not necessarily directed at him, other than to inquire, “What’s that you say?” No law proscribes answering a question that is not intended for anyone in particular.
Moore’s law, which points to the likelihood that even televisions will someday be embedded in our nostrils and earlobes, indicates that human communication is likely to become a far more aleatory phenomenon. Chance encounters with words are already becoming so overpowering as to forestall normal conversation, which in a decade or two could become to human interchange what the e-mail is to the hand-written letter.  Yes, it’s nice to meet someone, become fascinated by what they say, and even fall in love with them, but it is unlikely that there will be room for such cultivated banter when we encounter the future technocracy. Even the most earnest, reflective, and fully psychoanalyzed individual is no match for the self-revelation available from anyone with a tiny Nokia embedded in his lips.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Superman in Waziristan

No foreign power has ever succeeded in Afghanistan: not the Russians, and not the English before them.  New York Times reporter David Rohde’s account of his heroic escape from imprisonment in Afghanistan and the Waziristan area of Pakistan had the quality of a thriller, but neither the reporter’s cell nor his minders were constructs from a novelist’s palette, though most novelists would be hard put to come up with the cast of characters Rohde paints.
The borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are like a moonscape. When you look at images from photographers embedded with U.S. forces, there are the familiar trees and rocks and earth, but the similarities to our known universe end there. If NASA wanted a training ground that resembled an unexplored planet, they could do worse than to travel to Afghanistan, where life as we know it is unlikely to be found, even in the relative sanctuary of Kabul.

And who is the Afghan leader Mohammed Karzai? Does the educated lilt camouflage the next generation of errant nobility. He looks like he would be more at home on Nice’s Promenade Des Anglais than in his tightly guarded compound.
In Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad deals with another kind of radicalism. But the title is haunting when one thinks of Afghanistan, a country affixed by a distrustful Western gaze, defying rationality and every attempt to tame its tribal infrastructure with the lure of so-called democracy. The Taliban protects the farmers, who grow the poppies that are Kryponite for the next generation of superannuated Supermen, whether English, Russian, or American. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Kingdom for a Horse!

If a person loses their glasses, how do they find them? This simple question creates conundrums that may lead all the way to the unification theory Einstein spent a lifetime trying to resolve—without success, it should be noted. How to relate the microcosm to the macrocosm, the forces affecting quanta—the smallest particles that scientists are seeking to discover in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—to those involved in cosmic events like the Big Bang?

But let’s return to the simple pair of glasses left in a health food restaurant by a man in late middle-age who is still tormented by the infamous Twilight Zone episode in which the Burgess Meredith character, only wanting to be left alone with his books, cracks his glasses, and, in a world devoid of people but chock-full of reading material, is left unable to read. The discovery that the glasses may be tantalizingly within reach yet impossible to find unleashes a host of singularities that epitomize the Sisyphean nature of the human project. How many words are left stranded on the tip of the tongue? How many things that could have been said in a crucial moment of adversity are left unsaid as the mind goes blank? The internal dialogue following such dumbstruck episodes is astonishing in its eloquence, and in the facility with which derisive language is conjured up.

Outside the health food restaurant, wives and friends are waiting, cabs come and go, and the hands grow sweaty as they sweep the table top, the leather seat cushion, the stained and polyurethaned wood floor. But nothing is to be found. Glasses are uncomplicated objects, seemingly easy to replace. Certainly losing glasses is nothing like the loss of a kidney or a breast, and yet it is impossible for our hero to pull himself away from his search. Just one more minute and the world can be set aright. Those who care about him are growing impatient. What is it the blind man is seeking?  Plainly, it is not simply a pair of glasses. Why is this so hard to understand?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Maliki Stands Up Gates

“Defense secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here on Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, but the prime minister said he was too busy to see Mr. Gates…”

There are two questions. What did Mr. Gates do, and how did he feel? Is it jumping to conclusions to believe that Defense Secretary Gates went back to his hotel after being rebuffed by the Iraqi Prime Minister? Can we assume that he was staying in a nice place in the Green Zone, with a spa, workout facility, and business center? Defense Secretary Gates is a busy man, but Iraq is not a hop, skip, and a jump from Kabul, which was Gates’s previous stop, so we can assume that he and his aides took the attitude popular in the recovery movement—one door closing means another opening (in this case the door to his hotel suite). Can we conclude that most of the five-star hotels in the Green Zone have satellite television? Can we conclude that Defense Secretary Gates would stretch out and watch CNN, Desperate Housewives, and all his favorite reality shows?  Would he be able to grab a bite, so that when Prime Minister Maliki found some time for him, he wouldn’t be eating his own shirt?
Of course, the more important question—and it’s one that would be of interest to psycho-historians—is this: is Defense Secretary Gates defensive? Is he the kind of man who feels slighted by the one person at the party who gives him the cold shoulder, or does he have enough self-confidence to not take apparent slights personally? The paranoid response would be that Maliki has something against him, or doesn’t think he’s important enough. The anxiety model would put Gates in the position of waiting for an apologetic call or e-mail that never comes. Of course, the reality is that the Iraqi Prime Minister was experiencing pressure from his Parliament due to a spate of bombings. But it takes a big man (or woman) to be able to see the forest for the trees. “He certainly doesn’t consider it a snub,” Pentagon Press Secrectary Geoff Morrell was reported as saying in the Times piece. We’ll never know what Secretary Gates was thinking as he lay on his bed staring at the ceiling of his hotel room—will we?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Crimes of the Heart

What do Terry Stanton, Tiger Woods, Silvio Berlusconi, Eliot Spitzer, and Bill Clinton all have in common? Each of these men has attained a certain degree of celebrity not only for their professional abilities, but also for their extramarital exploits. More importantly, each epitomizes a tendency to make value judgments about human sexuality. Bonobos have recently come into the news because of their polymorphous perversity, bisexuality, and, in the case of males, generalized priapic behavior. Recent stories have revealed a degree of admiration for these love apes—though a piece in The New Yorker qualified the matter by questioning the bonobo as a paradigm of cuddliness, and introduced the specter of aggression into the palette of their behaviors.
Victor Hugo, George Simenon, John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and most of the characters in novels by mid-20th-century American authors like Richard Yates, John Updike, and John Cheever—all indulged in adulterous exploits. In fact, far more repressive times have yielded a greater admiration for infidelities. Even as children, we were taught that Benjamin Franklin explored electricity in ways other than simply flying a kite. Colette, George Sand, Anaïs Nin, Djuna Barnes, the abstract expressionist artist Joan Mitchell, and Mary McCarthy are only a few of the famous women who led equally colorful sex lives.

Yet for all the openness about sexuality in our current age, and all the attempts to deal with both the problems and pleasures of the libido, few periods in history, with the exception of the Puritan world of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, seem to be as censorious of human impulse as the present day. Yes, crashing cars and hiring prostitutes might be a source of interest and even concern. It’s true that condom companies are the only endorsement Tiger Woods is likely to retain in the coming year. But the shock and surprise that a golfer might gratify the attraction generated by his legendary swing betrays a questionable threshold for human transgression. Adultery isn’t a victimless act, but why has it risen to the top of the food chain in the evolution of society’s response to human sin? Only the French seem to cherish desire as the ultimate form of natural selection.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode IX (Art House)

Photos by Hallie Cohen

Not that all cinema isn’t art, but the true art cinema, redolent with the smell of espresso and Gauloise cigarettes—or Italian Nationali, which are no longer made—is a relic of the past. In those halcyon days, brilliance was purchased at a price. Artists set themselves on fire like Buddhist monks. Pasolini was murdered on a dangerous prowl, and Pollock’s intoxication spread from art to alcohol, leading to his untimely demise in a drunk-driving incident. There was no innocence in the art cinemas, which breathed not only the fumes of strong cigarette smoke, but of the Cedar Bar, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and Bazin’s Cinematheque, the archetypal art house.

Across America, there were little covens of European Cinema that also played the films of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Teshigahara. The Brattle in Boston, The Bleecker Street and New Yorker in Manhattan, and the Uptown, which still proudly reigns over Minneapolis, with its worn neon sign reaching towards the heavens. With the din of the marching band and the cacophony of invading armies in the background, The Battleship Potemkin survived, along with Ikiru and Persona, Ashes and Diamonds and L'eclisse.

Lovers of Antonioni, Bergman and Kurosawa worshipped by themselves in these temples of celluloid.  Women wore black stockings when they went to see Room at the Top. The self enforced solitude was disquieting, but was also, like the smoke, what made the experience.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Broken Embraces

Ambivalent or enigmatic paternity is one of the themes of Pedro Almodovar’s recently released Broken Embraces, as is the question of artistic patrimony. The provenance of the cinema-obsessed, fledgling filmmaker who lingers at the periphery of Broken Embraces is British director Michael Powell’s classic meditation on voyeurism, Peeping Tom. In his famed essay, “Contre Sainte-Beuve,” Proust criticized the autobiographical interpretation of art. Is the character of the abandoned son of a wealthy industrialist, who inadvertently films the scene of his father’s mistress’s infidelity and death, a stand-in for Almodovar, a voyeur at the scene of an accident?
Broken Embraces opens with another filmmaker, the blinded protagonist Harry Caine, unable to visually identify the woman he is possibly impregnating, and ends with him gaining paternity of a child he never knew was his.
Wordsworth famously wrote, “The child is father of the man.” But who is the father of the father? Are the claims of the flesh in fact too weak to take precedence over history, or, in the case of Almodovar, film history? Is the Oedipus complex irrelevant to Almodovar’s cinematic universe? Harry Caine steals the mistress of a powerful producer; he is blinded like Oedipus, and yet he goes on to live and thrive as an artist.
Art, rather than passion, is ultimately Almodovar’s lingua franca in Broken Embraces. One of the great transgressions of the movie is an act of vengeance by Harry’s longtime editor, who mutilates his art in a jealous rage. Substitute edit for castrate. The esthetic world that Almodovar creates situates its major rivalry in the act of creation. The real father of Broken Embraces is Bergman, whose Fanny and Alexander makes a cameo appearance as a reminder of the filmmaker’s patrimony.

Monday, December 7, 2009

L'Age d'Or

Even the stage sets of the famous ‘50s Lone Ranger TV series were primitive. The Lone Ranger and Tonto always seemed to arrive at the same mountain pass, with the same pair of boulders that looked a little worse for the wear. In essence, neither the Lone Ranger nor Tonto were going anywhere. They were not what today would be called socially mobile, either as fictional characters or as beneficiaries of the myth of the Wild West.
Let’s turn to another classic, The Life of Riley, with the all-but-forgotten William Bendix in the title role. The protagonist works in an aeronautics factory and carries one of those lunch boxes that look like a miniature airplane hanger. Looming in the background is the post-war prosperity of Imperial America. Riley works on an assembly line, but lives in a cheery split-level house with flower boxes on the window-sills. There is something value-free about his occupation. Though the series was made in the post-war period, plants that made aircraft consumed the war economy of the previous decade. The Life of Riley is the lighter side of the project. Riley bears no responsibility for the finished product or the murder that his productivity wreaks. He is merely a cog, taking orders from his superiors. He exemplifies the early Marx papers of 1848, with their emphasis on the alienation of the worker caused by two premises of capitalist production—division of labor and economies of scale. Yet he is as happy as a bird.
Exhibit three: The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden is a New York City bus driver who lives in a tenement where the fire escape is as constant a part of the set as the boulders in The Lone Ranger. He has argumentative relationships with his wife Alice, his best friend Norton, and Norton’s wife Trixy. In the lingo of our current culture, Ralph and Alice would be described as a dysfunctional family, in which the wife parries an ever-increasing crescendo of insults from her sadistic husband. If Ralph’s rage were to cross the line from verbal to physical, he could easily be placed in the Joel Steinberg category, as his insults and character assassination are remorseless, unrelenting, and fundamentally aimed at extinguishing the will and identities of those closest to him.
The Golden Age of Television unwittingly echoed the Theater of the Absurd—epitomized by Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter—and it’s not hard to imagine scripts for The Lone Ranger, The Life of Riley, or The Honeymooners being performed in the tiny Théâtre de la Huchette, where Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have played in repertory since 1957. The spare, unchanging sets, the opaque humor of the dialogue, with its barely repressed violence, and the droning sense of time could easily turn the scripts for these popular ‘50s television series into the basis for a new avant-garde theater movement, which could be named after Buñuel’s famed surrealist masterpiece, L’Age d’Or

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Humpty Hump

The expression “looks like a plan” is part of the assault on language that has been led by “we’re on the same pagers.” The eminence grise behind this movement is an unassuming fellow with graying, curly hair who believes he was the first person who ever responded, “I can’t complain,” when asked how he was. Yes, there is always a verbal Adam who spouts these inanities for the very first time, just like there was someone who contracted the first case of Marburg’s from a monkey. “Looks like we have a plan” is a little like Marburg’s to the extent that it infects the unwitting recipient and tears his insides out. There may be a diegesis to a series of actions, but these actions do not constitute a plan. They represent a futile attempt to find some order in reality. With time and the contingencies of other actions in the world, any rumination about the future that might be termed a plan is likely to be disappointed.

Only the other day a thinker on these matters was on his way to his annual camp reunion/sing-along, which was held at a well-known Manhattan private school. The thinker had made contact with several old campmates and others who he thought might enjoy the event. It was like going on a dig.  The event held archeological interest and was the kind of thing that might be placed in a time capsule for future generations to enjoy.

Using logic and persuasion, he enacted what he thought to be a plan to meet up with a few childhood friends at the reunion. Under the current linguistic regime, he might have smugly announced, “Looks like a plan!” But the thinker in question is a follower of the Milesian school of pre-Socratic philosophy, having studied such well-known figures as Anaximander, Thales, and Heraclitus. He knew the world was in a constant state of flux, and hence immune to plans. He knew, in short, that it didn’t “look like a plan,” and that neither he nor his correspondents were “on the same page.” On the way to the function, he might have sighed and felt a moment’s yearning for the tidy security of his camp days, but he quickly realized that, all things considered, his life was great, and, to that effect, said aloud, “I really can’t complain.”  A regrettable lapse of discipline, to be sure.  “Hindsight is 20/20” is another favored homily amongst the “I can’t complain” crowd, but the thinker quickly realized that he must neither complain nor lament his imperfect foresight.  Then Humpty proceeded to fall to pieces and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty back together again.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Omni Faust

Despite the strains of Puritanism, Calvinism and Transcendentalism in American life, money still has an allure that can corrupt. Money brings with it power and the illusion of immunity to mortality. Money, as the song goes, “gets you what you want.” Certainly money is frequently confused with love. Success in making it or getting it is enough to make some people feel loved, or unloved, depending on their luck. Money is subject to the pathetic fallacy, and nature can seem threatening or unthreatening depending on the condition of one’s pocket book.

But it is not only money. Even if we get enough money, we certainly never get enough time on earth. Who would be willing to ascribe to actuarial statistics that suggest that his or her time is up? The person who dies at 50 is cheated by current standards, but those who live to be 75, 80 and 90 still want more. Who knows anyone—except those whose aging has extinguished their ability to enjoy life—willing to give up their life in the name of fairness?  Who is going to hand over their heart to a younger person who needs it, when they are still fit? Of course there are suicide bombers and Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire, but at least in the case of the former there is some degree of belief that the sacrifice will lead to a payoff in the life to come.
In short, Faust lives on in all of us, whether we are talking of Marlowe’s version or Goethe’s. To what lengths will we go to attain the secrets of life, both material and metaphysical? Who, when offered power and knowledge and the ensuing fruits that they bear, would not be willing to sell his or her soul?  The Faust Syndrome is like the Oedipus Complex, an indelible and insurmountable aspect of the human condition that only loses its potency when Homo sapiens cast their gaze over the world for the last time.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode VIII (Let's Do Lunch)

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Most writers today are too young to remember the infamous SASE, or self-addressed stamped envelope. The sight of your returned SASE in the mailbox was the equivalent of being stabbed in the back by the STASI before the fall of the Wall. It was tantamount to being extraordinarily rendered by The Company and involuntarily entered in the waterboarding time trials in Tirana.
The advent of email has ruined certain key rites of passage, like receiving a SASE on a gray afternoon in the middle President’s Day weekend, with no possibility of remediation on Monday, it being a federal holiday.
Of course the phone company doesn’t celebrate Lincoln’s or Washington’s birthdays. Why not call and ask for an explanation?  Then again, there is no law that says a writer can’t just jump off a cliff.

     “Is Max Perkins in?”
     “Who, may I ask, is calling?”
     “It’s Ernie Hemingway, silly.”
     “I see, but I thought you had blown your head off.”
     “No, I actually just got scored by a bull’s horns in Pamplona. In Second Life.”
The Phone Doesn’t Ring Twice is a sequel to James M. Cain's famed novel that is just waiting to be written. It deals with the rage growing in the heart of a writer whose calls to editors are nothing but unanswered prayers.
So what is writing, or literature for that matter, without the SASE, the phone, and the notorious publishing lunch? A writer knew he had made it when an editor or agent invited him to lunch. But the publishing lunch has gone the way of Random House's house.
In addition, most of the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers that publishing companies now occupy have become too expensive for what is essentially a cottage industry, and the average Joe, who still dreams of singing for his supper, or lunch, is left to surf the Internet with a bagel. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ordinary Pain

You are speeding along by yourself on an Interstate when a really great song like Stevie Wonder’s Love’s In Need of Love Today comes on, and you turn the sound up as loud as it will go.
What is a nice guy or girl? Cordelia wasn’t nice because she didn’t say what Lear wanted to hear. Goneril is definitely not nice. Oracles are not nice. Soothsayers like Calchas are not nice. The Sphinx is not nice in Oedipus because it only proposes riddles. You have to go through hoops to answer what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?
Lionel Trilling dealt with this subject in a series of essays called “Sincerity and Authenticity.” But what do these terms really connote? Are the Cordelias of the world better than the Gonerils, or are they merely seeking another kind of gain, i.e., martyrdom and moral superiority? One way to get ahead in the world might be to ask for things, another might be to propose self-deprivation. Though Augustine repudiated earthly desires, he made it (by the worldly standard of fame). Gandhi had a good run of success, as did philosophical kindred like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who used passive resistance to achieve their aims. Is the man of peace better than the warrior? Is Mother Theresa saintly in comparison to Clausewitz, who argued that war was merely “the continuation of politics”? We are all imperialists, both on ontogenic and phylogenic levels. We all want to control and dominate, whether it’s a person, a class, or a society of people. Was Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik fundamentally more evil than the politics of conciliation that might be advocated by organizations of doves?
So is it all a matter of presentation, The Presentation of the Self in Every Day Life that Erving  Goffman described in his famed sociological tome. Is it all public relations? Is personality a series of conscious and unconscious decisions with a pubic face, but no moral scorecard?
Now you are speeding down the same highway and Freyda Payne’s disco classic Band of Gold comes on the oldies station.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Diasporic Dining Episode VII: The Possessed

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Everyone has an as-if personality. We’re all ventriloquists and plagiarists looting the stores of memory. It’s a riot scene, the intensity so extreme that it’s virtually impossible to tell where the goods have come from. The integrity of personality is constantly violated, since it’s not clear where one lode of memory begins and another ends. We engender and possess thoughts only to discover that they are coagulations of recycled intellectual matter on Wikipedia, Twitter, or Second Life. There is a famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith plays a man who only wants to be left alone to read.  He wakes up one day to discover he is the last person on earth, with all the peace and quiet for reading he could ever want, only to break his last pair of glasses. The Twilight Zone was a product of the information age. What was tragic in one context could be liberating in the next. The “Willoughby” episode, in which the hard-driving advertising executive lands in a slow-moving past of an idealized childhood, reflects a yearning for freedom from The Data Base, the monster that strangles the integrity of personality. The internet revolution, and in particular the interactive media sites, with their illusion of instantaneous intimacy, have murdered solitude.
Every age has its hermits, troll-like creatures who live in tin shacks in the wilderness, shunning the conveniences of electricity and running water, and most importantly the company of men. And then there are the Luddites, the hackers, the creators of viruses like Conficker, radical political figures like Kropotkin, and existentialist literary heroes like Raskolnikov, whose millenarian idiom is ultimately an attempt to reduce all texts to one Truth. The Data Base has become the villain, but the cry is no longer “Back to Nature!” since there is no longer any nature to go back to. Possessed and Dispossessed can be used interchangeably to refer to the budding class of Mutants who no longer wish to inhabit their own minds.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Calcei Recalciatus

Sartor Resartus, meaning “the tailor re-tailored,” was the title of a famous work by the nineteenth century author Thomas Carlyle. But Calcei Recalciatus might be a more fitting description for the sensibility of our age. Remember the knee-high boots Jane Fonda wore in her Academy Award-winning performance as the prostitute Bree Daniels in 1971’s Klute? That may have been one of those rare intersections between podiatry and culture, and certainly marked a distinct shift from the notion of looking into a person’s eyes as a determination of character. Klute did for foot fetishism what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for computers, each ushering in an era of new paraphernalia.
Many people have the mistaken impression that platform shoes are relics of the disco era. In fact the platform shoe, along with the fuck-me pump, are both alive and kicking. And if you look down at the golden rail in any midtown bar and you will see hundreds of old fashioned wing tips, as pointed and studded and cocksure as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt himself. Pat Boone made white bucks famous, but they remain an assertion that joie de vivre is timeless. And what about the fate of the Bass Weejun in an age when Nike running shoes have asserted their hegemony over all other casual attire? The Weejun has become like the Lost Generation, the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways who made Europe their home in the Jazz Age. Loafers, worn without socks, may not have prevailed in America, but they have crossed the pond and live on as character builders in Europe.
Take a walk on lower Broadway in Manhattan any weekend night, when crowds of young people march in lockstep towards the evening’s oblivion, and watch the bouncers part the velvet rope to one of Serge Becker’s trendy clubs, and you’ll see that it’s shoes, not clothes, that make the man…or least make an impression.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Labyrinth of Solitude

Modern technology challenges the notion of place. If we are constantly plugged in to an electronic universe, we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What difference does it make if you are at the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon if you are returning emails on your Blackberry? Of course, the same can be said of the printing press and the telephone, but the speed and intensity of modern technology fractures the integrity of the individual ego, defined by the boundary of the epidermis. It is not unusual for a busy individual to be the recipient of hundreds of emails a day, and these, together with the plethora of other information sources, have left in their wake a refugee, a spiritual wanderer increasingly deprived of the usual attachments by which identity is defined. And yet, one is never alone.
Now, let’s look at this from the point of view of the pre-Socratic stoic philosophers. The Eleatics  (Zeno, Parmenides, Melissus), as they were called, believed that the world was unchanging and that the seeming flux was all an illusion. Zeno’s paradox, starring Achilles and the tortoise, is the most famous example of this conundrum. Essentially, the rabid Facebook addict or the individual who has invented an avatar for an online game like Second Life, sits alone in his refuge, attempting to respond to all the messages he receives. He is in constant communication with numerous people all over the world who he rarely, if ever, sees, and who he scarcely knows. In the fifties, people left lewd messages on the inside of toilet stalls. After they dropped one load, they left another in hieroglyphic form. Do these early forms of “cave painting” tell us something about the sources of our modern electronic miracle? Has the high tech world of interactive communication freed us, or merely created a new form of solitude? Perhaps the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz was right when he compared solitude to a labyrinth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode VI (Organic Fusion at Modestly High Prices)

It’s no longer 1984, but George Orwell’s Newspeak is alive and kicking in our modern culinary establishments. There is a certain kind of antiseptic, multi-starred restaurant, run by graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Adminisration, which advertises fusion cuisine made with organic, free-range products, in which the dining experience is very close to having a surgical procedure at the Mayo Clinic. After waiting to be seated in a reception area that looks like a doctor’s office and only contains magazines made from recycled paper products, diners are led to their table by a functionary who has adopted the attitude of neutrality still employed by orthodox Freudian analysts. The ensuing parental transference makes it virtually impossible to protest that the table is drafty or the seating cramped.

Photographs by Hallie Cohen

Seat belts are not required, but a diner is left in the care of a creature with the requisite sedative tableside manner. “I will be your server throughout your Organic Fusion Cuisine At Modestly High Prices experience.” The diner will undoubtedly be reminded of the famous Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” in which a humanitarian manifesto created by seemingly friendly aliens turns out to be a cookbook. Trekkies may confuse their server with Mr. Spock.

The attitude of the server is one of complete understanding, up until a certain point, as the chef and his kitchen are not going to be held hostage by patrons with boundary issues. The server’s job is to tell his or her customers that by coming to the restaurant they have relinquished their freedom, along with a considerable sum of money.

This is what is known as pleasure and happiness in the culture of Western society in the first half of the twenty-first century. The ordering process is one of seeming choices that are little more than self-fulfilling prophecies. There is no way that the diner is going to get ketchup or salt, and chances are nil that his or her palette will experience the delight that comes from awakening familiar taste buds. Duck is never crispy and can never be served whole, and orange sauce is expressly forbidden. Rather, it is only served in portions large enough to feed a bird, and must look and taste like a piece of raw fish. Bread and butter are treated like alcohol during prohibition. “Organic Fusion” has an on-premise Eliot Ness to make sure that interlopers don’t take an attitude towards the bread that oenophiles take towards wine in a BYOB restaurant, ie easy come-easy go.

Paying is similar to being checked out of a hospital or waiting for air traffic control to release your flight during a backup at Kennedy. One can certainly ask for the check, and all manner of complaints and excuses can be made, but no one is paying until the tower is good and ready. However, having completed an experience at Organic Fusion Cuisine At Modestly High Prices, the veteran diner will heave a sigh of relief. Though the experience has it esthetic delights, there is no doubt that it is intended to result in an empty stomach. Having ordered, eaten and paid, the only thing left to do after a meal at Organic Fusion is to get something to eat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the earth people can’t complain. Don’t ask how they are if you are complaining about the malignity of the universe, because they invariably “can’t complain.” Salt of the earth people are always elbowing each other as a gesture of understanding. Nudge nudge. They don’t like “troublemakers.” Salt of the earth people, or SOTES, don’t care that there are cohesive forms of social organization (mostly made up of what the famed political philosopher and former Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to as the effete) that are not predicated on the idea that SOTES hold so dear, ie that ordinary folk are better than those who try to be somebody. SOTES tend not to agree with Oscar Wilde’s quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
What is this love of the ordinary, this fascination with belonging, indifference, and self-possession, that makes the SOTE such an object of curiosity? Thomas Mann alluded to this in his story Tonio Kröger, in which alienation brings with it a certain longing. SOTES don’t talk about their anhedonia, their loss of interest in things, or their feelings of longing. Madame Bovary was definitely not a SOTE. In a way, even Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, the quintessential SOTE, might not have finally qualified, due to the ironies in which the author embedded him.
But here are some rules. If you ever pull into town in one of those moods where you’re tired of reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and want to hang with the local SOTES, if there’s a glaring sun, don’t say how Main Street reminds you of the first line of Camus’s L’Etranger: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” Definitely don’t mention Emile Durkheim’s classic sociological tome, Suicide, and don’t start to talk about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s On Death and Dying. Pretend you’ve never heard of the word “dystonic.” Don’t let on that you don't know a guy named Will, the local bartender and pundit, a bully and sadist everyone in town has loved since he was an evil little boy. Don’t try to become one of the boys by imitating the derogatory tones they use to talk about the fairer sex. What sounds mildly sexist to you will end up making you seem like a serial killer. Everyone will look at you and eventually you will be run out of town.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Little Murders

Are there bad people, or just people with problems that get of hand? The former Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic is now on trial in The Hague, accused of war crimes, but he was once a psychiatrist, a person trained to understand and treat the condition of those suffering from mental illness. Is this a contradiction? For many years following the war, Karadzic lived incognito, sporting long hair and a beard and practicing alternative medicine. His training and the identity he adopted are belied by the fact that he was a murderer and a killer. But surely manifest content is significant; surely some part of him was interested in healing.

Hitler loved dogs. The young Stalin wrote poetry and there were those who thought he might become a priest. What is it that unites these murderers? How do human beings whose behavior shows signs of empathy for others make an about face whereby the brother becomes the other?  Only last week, another crime shocked the nation: the murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, by yet another psychiatrist. What made Major Nidal Malik Hasan open fire? Was he bad or mad?

Little Murders is the title of a play by Jules Feiffer. In a sense, all of us are capable of homicide, and maybe even genocide on a small scale. The beloved wife, friend, business associate, or relative suddenly becomes the enemy, the other, and the vitriol is directly proportionate to the love that once existed. A sense of victimhood can always be counted on to induce revenge. Racial pride was an organizing principle of the Third Reich, allowing for whole new classifications of others. The notion of a shared injury can also become a unifying force that unites a whole population in mass paranoia. Historic feelings of persecution by Christians may have been one of the many causes of the Turkish massacre of its Armenian population. What set the Hutus against the Tutsis, the Janjaweed against the rebels in the Sudan? And what explains the viciousness with which Bosnian Serbs turned against the Muslims with whom they had lived in peace for decades? 

These are no mere squabbles of property lines, money and political power. The depraved indifference to human life that is characteristic of mass murder has the quality of a passion, the kind of passion that once contained the germs of human love. Weren’t the Crusades and the Inquisition about love of God? And yet an academic understanding of the roots of conflict does little to assuage the pain. The guilty still must face trial, even if, as in the case of Karadzic, they refuse to show up.

Monday, November 9, 2009

BJ's Acquires Delta

BJ’s Wholesale Cub, the discount warehouse chain, has acquired KLM, Air France, and Northwest, along with its parent airline Delta. While BJ’s executives have admitted that they have little knowledge of aviation, they indicated that the architecture of their mammoth supermarkets resembles that of an airplane hangar.

Passengers on these airlines are still required to report to their operating carrier in order to check bags and receive boarding passes, but they should call their local BJ’s when seeking flight departure and arrival information.
The BJ’s announcement has stimulated a rash of interest in beleaguered airline stocks from supermarket cash cows.  Sam’s Club has made an offer for British Air and Food Emporium has threatened a hostile takeover of American Airlines. Jet Blue has found a corporate suitor in Popeye’s, the fried chicken chain, which hopes to exploit marketing opportunities in the frequent flier demographic.
“Popeye’s looks at the proposed acquisition of Jet Blue as opening up a lucrative new market of stranded passengers, who will eat just about anything during long, tedious layovers,” said Bill Wilson, an airline industry analyst. “The world is being turned on its axis.” Indeed, Dulles International Airport was the scene of a near collision when the pilot of a Pan Am flight that had been taxiing since the early ‘70s spotted Colonel Sanders piloting an outgoing Singapore Airlines flight.
The history of the food industry’s interest in aviation stocks is a subject that will be dealt with in a forthcoming book by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, entitled, Getting His Wings: How A&P Heir Huntington Hartford Flew United’s Friendly Skies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Subprime Health Care

What to do when a notice arrives advertising health insurance—flexible plan, low monthly rate, covers dental, extended family, long term psychotherapy and analysis, cutting edge cancer, acupuncture, imaging, marriage counseling, inexpensive life and auto insurance options, risk of terrorist attack, plus as bonus: free monthly garage parking anywhere in the continental United States and Canada?

A new medical plan has just turned up in the fax machine. What to do? This one offers a $2,500 deductible policy. But before tossing it into the recycle bin, read the fine print. After paying off the $2,500 deductible, enrollees in the plan are offered private hospital rooms on VIP floors with river views, preventative botox, unlimited elective liposuction, preemptive triple bypass, electroshock, with all PTSD and STD’s welcome.

What about the second fax, which arrives a few minutes later? This plan boasts a free Cancun vacation with securitized collateral. What about the cutting edge plan that allows you, the patient, to become his or her own HMO and make thousands in the process? Chronically ill patients with pre existing conditions are welcome. It’s a plan to die for, literally. Just call the 1-888 number and receive a consultation with former IRS agents, who will help you buy your securitized subprime health insurance policy.

Pay unbelievably low rates that only increase when medical care is required. Huh? Read the fine print. The policy says that you and your family are covered for medical, dental and psychiatric, as long as there are no medical, dental or psychiatric problems. Fair enough, because if you think about it, what they are offering is peace of mind. For the low rate of $69 a month, it is possible to possess a solid plastic health insurance card with a bona fide image of the caduceus on the front. When you enter the doctor’s office and the receptionist asks for your insurance card, just hand it over and proceed to treatment. It's the pay-the-piper plan. Someone is going to have to pay the piper once it turns out that the policy covers no medical conditions. But let’s worry about that later. The most important thing is the health of you and your loved ones, even if you have an aneurysm when you receive the bill.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sun Yat Tim

With the budget deficit climbing above the $l trillion mark, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced the creation of new federal watchdogs in order to help prevent the United States from becoming a debtor nation. “We want the US to become a creditor nation,” Mr. Geithner announced. At the same news conference, Mr. Geithner indicated that he was changing his name to Sun Yat Tim in order to facilitate the relocation of the Treasury Office to Shanghai, a move that was announced at a news conference earlier in the week.
The creation of important new agencies, among them ANT (Agency for National Trade) and MUG (Microeconomic Unilateral Genome), are important aspects of the administration’s newest attempts to inject adrenalin into a lackluster economy.
“The development of a whole new set of acronyms is an important first step in moving America back to its position as a world economic leader,” President Obama told CNN in a recent interview. “For every TARP, there must be a PANCHO, or at least a TENT (Temporary Environment Nonspecific Task Force).
Treasury Secretary Tim went on to say that the United States’s balance of trade should in no way be impacted by a policy that virtually guarantees China’s ability to out-price its American manufacturing counterparts.
One of the highlights of the joint Treasury and Federal Reserve news conference was the appearance of Mr. Bernanke in traditional Chinese garb, including a Versace Mao jacket and a Fu Manchu goatee. The Federal Reserve (and its Fort Knox gold reserve) has already moved to Beijing at the request of its creditor. However, Mr. Bernanke has indicated he would retain his birth name, as opposed to adopting the Chinese Sun Young Ben, for personal reasons.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode V (Robert Moses Big Band)

Cruising along the Long Island Expressway late on a Saturday night (when the famed Robert Moses artery is uncharacteristically empty), past the low-lying pine barrens that grow out from Shinnecock Bay, the lone driver picks up the sounds of Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller on the local NPR station. The broadcast is part of an ongoing big band series.

Photographs by Hallie Cohen

There have been few examples of executives tossing themselves out of Wall Street buildings, as happened on Back Tuesday in l929, but the world has begun to shrink, and with the repercussions affecting virtually every segment of society, there is solace to be found in the nostalgia of gravelly old recordings, the announcer intoning, “In l942 Captain Glenn Miller brought his trombone to the armed forces…” It was wartime and yet there was hope and a sense of purpose, two ingredients that are lost in the current oil spill of failed materialism. Driving into the night, a busted distributor cap creates muted fireworks, a baleful underscore to the swinging percussion section.

The big band era didn’t produce the topiaries of hedge fund America, but there was a glamour and formality to the times. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s it wasn’t just the kids who came to see and be seen. In formal attire, the jitter-buggers congregated in places like the Stork Club, with its lipstick stained high balls, lingering fumes of scotch, and cigarette holders, while Johnny Roventini, the diminutive bellhop, cried out his Shakespearean “Call for Phillip Morris!”

Soon the Doppler sound of the muted trumpet has faded, and the traveler wanders the aisles of this century’s late night supermarket, with its Muzak, its outraged British tabloid headlines, its butcher with a blood stained apron—a latter day Henry V at Agincourt.

Friday, October 30, 2009


There is a woman who is a modern day Helen of Troy. She realizes the power she has over men, which is to get attention by giving it. Despite the transparency, her victims are totally prostrated by her dark gaze. There is a bit of mockery in that gaze, a sense of déjà vu, an unearned familiarity. Marlowe described Helen in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus as “the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.”  Men of great experience are willing to relinquish everything for nothing. They are totally conquered by her, and would easily make Paris’s mistake, sacrificing their own lives and those of their comrades for a phantom. They literally fall for her.
Helen travels up and down modern skyscrapers and plies her charms amidst jihads, health plans, and G20 talks, amidst sophisticated wine tastings and designer fittings, amidst Esalen hot tubs and wilderness rehab sweat lodges, amidst particle accelerators and Hubble telescopes, amidst securitized mortgages, TARP funds, and credit default swaps.  Her perfumed fingerprints grace the legacies of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses alike.

Wagner’s Bayreuth and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater are monuments to the power of the demiurge, what George Bernard Shaw called the Life Force. Goethe said at the end of his Faust, “the eternal feminine/ lures to perfection,” though this latter-day Helen plainly lures man to disaster, the same way the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis lured the unwary traveler in Odysseus’s day.
This Helen lives on among proficiently demystifying sexperts who ascend the mountain of safe sex, a testament that certain longings have not entirely passed from the world, that science is not totally triumphant, and that disenchantment has not overtaken the multiverse. Helen makes no sense, yet armies of her admirers still fall both for her and the Trojan Horse. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Milkman the Clubman

In the old days, before the fall of Lehman, obits routinely listed the names of clubs to which deceased executives had belonged. They were the hallowed halls of the University Club, (housed in the auspicious McKim, Mead, and White structure on the corner of 54th and Fifth), the Union Club on 69th and Park, the Racquet and Tennis Club (housed in another McKim, Mead, and White structure on Park Avenue), the New York Athletic Club (the monstrosity on the corner of 57th and 7th, once famed for the turbulent masculinity of its naked steam rooms). And then there are the cultural fixtures like the Grolier on 60th and the exclusive Century Club, founded by writers and artists in the 19th Century (Winslow Homer was a member), and housed in yet another Stanford White designed structure on West 43rd street. Here, the upper echelons of business and art met (and still meet) to decide what the rest of society would eat, both figuratively, in terms of the nourishment provided by ideas, and literally, in terms of the valences accorded to the preeminent cuisines of the day.

But times have changed. Many corporate leaders will finish serving their jail terms just in time to vanish into the great beyond, which begs the question of how their obits will read. Let’s take an example that is a composite of Ken Lay, the deceased Enron chairman, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, who both served time for illegal marketplace manipulations, and a number of other masterminds of corporate crime, like accused insider trader Raj Rajaratnam of Galleon, who is likely to be indicted within the year—to say nothing of Marc Rich, whose pardon by President Clinton failed to spare him opprobrium.

Let’s call this composite miscreant Michael Milkman. After recounting Milkman’s education (Harvard MBA), early training (worked for Sandy Weill at Amex), and very early success, in which he is compared to the the famed Saul Steinberg—not Steinberg the artist who did all the labyrinthine NewYorker covers, but the one who attempted to acquire the old Chemical bank with its own assets—the obit will come to the obligatory paragraph about club memberships. Milkman, it will say, was a member of the Century, Union and Racquets Clubs from which he was later asked to resign. At the time of his death Milkman was a member of BJ’s and Sam’s Clubs and of Costco, for which he retained a family membership card.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode IV

Back in the days when America was a prosperous country, eating conformed to Thorstein Veblen’s doctrine of conspicuous consumption.  Oenophiles and varying kind of agrophiles and phobeds flocked to restaurants that specialized in presentation. There was a particular fascination with all things French, duplicating a fixation that began in Russia with Peter the Great, and that ran right up until the revolution. (The elegant Manhattan gallery, A La Vieille Russie, specializes in Faberge eggs and the kinds of Russian Imperial treasures that canonize French culture.) The appearance of French food was once seen as a form of ostentation similar to the luxury goods—cars, summer homes, jewelry—so often used as expressions of class superiority. Escoffier and Emily Post are personifications of class consciousness, in that the manners, mores and appreciation they exude require a certain level of leisure time, while simple dishes like meat loaf and potatoes are associated with the working man or woman, for whom eating is a matter of refilling the empty tank, an act generally accomplished with a silent, often sullen counterpart in front of the TV.

Writers like Julia Childs and M.F.K. Fisher taught us about haute cuisine, but what about moyenne cuisine or basse cusine, like the Croque Monsieur sold in most French cafes? Today, with tempers short and pocketbooks thin, the age of haute cuisine has happily passed. Those Goldman Sachs executives who can afford to eat in the grand old French restaurants don’t dare to be photographed using their stimulus bonuses to purchase overpriced meals. La Grenouille is one of the last on a list that included La Côte Basque, which figures in the title of Truman Capote’s famed expose of café society that served to exile him from the very world into which he’d longed to gain entrée.

This is the age of comfort food, with 24-hour diners in their original Greek form (the Athens, the Dionysius, the Parthenon, the Ethos, the Lyric) or in ersatz incarnations such as the Brooklyn Diner or Big Daddy’s, which raise prices by treating a viable part of American cuisine as a period piece. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain said. Similarly, murmurings about the demise of the local diner are premature. After all, what can be gotten at La Grenouille that can’t be gotten at the Lyric?  Here is a comparision: at La Grenouille, the service is formal, the food excellent (if you like quenelles), and the atmosphere elegant.  At the Lyric, the service is surly, the food is good (if you like Chicken à la King), and the atmosphere is comforting—if you are at the point where you have lost everything (or know someone who has), and have nowhere else to go.  The lighting can be harsh, but so is life.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Carpe Diem

Carpe diem, “seize the day,” is the advice of both the sybarite and the stoic. It’s an excuse to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, as well as an exhortation to enjoy the moment whether or not it gratifies the senses.
In reality, only a devout Buddhist monk could truly live in the moment, and his form of living would involve zazen, or sitting meditation. Those who are not so spiritually advanced are doomed to live in a world of either regret about past mistakes or expectations about future rewards. The present falls prey to the allure of that which is past or has yet to be. That which exists always comes up short when compared to what is missing. The sometime lover almost always wins out over the erstwhile companion for life. The fleeting image contains a world of possibility, whereas the known bears the weight of predictability. In short, familiarity breeds contempt.

Carpe diem leaves out so many imaginative possibilities, in particular those having to do with nostalgia and hope. What would The Winter’s Tale be in a world of carpe diem? Impossible dreams and hopes fall by the wayside if the object is to “seize the day.” And then there is the beautiful, sad world of nostalgia. Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is predicated almost completely on the murderous grip of the past over the present—in this instance because of a false accusation with consequences that ripple through time.

The past is what catalyzes most human behavior. Lovers are more in the grip of the past then they might want to know. Love doesn’t come out of nowhere. The love object must have a frame of reference, and that reference is inevitably some idealized figure in the past, in most cases a parent.
How to subscribe to carpe diem and remain a fan of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and especially Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the authoritative work on the magnetism of the past? Was it the past Eurydice was looking back at in the transgression that led her to relinquish her grip on the present? All Eurydice would have had to do was to continue looking straight at what was in front of her. She’s an example of a mythological figure with all too human traits.
“One day at a time,” “one day, one lifetime,” and “live in the now” have replaced the dirty jokes on the inside of bathroom stalls. But this devotion to the present is a little like the doctrine of passive resistance. It runs counter to the very impulses and longings that that make for both the horror and beauty of what it means to be human. To be spiritually advanced enough to live in the present requires one to turn the other cheek. In the end, carpe diem could (God forbid!) give way to the austerities of Opus Dei.