Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Against Nature

Nature is regarded as a respite, a solace, a source of man’s power and a reflection of his inner being, as in the notion of the pathetic fallacy. But what if nature is inimical to man, dissonant with man’s inner being? The beauty of the natural wonders of the world has the power to ennoble. But these wonders can just as easily alienate when they conflict with the inner sensibility of the perceiver. It is truly horrible to schlep all the way to the Grand Canyon and find nothing but tourists mouthing off meaningless hosannas of “Wow!” “Awesome!” “Spectacular!” Such hyperbole makes it impossible to objectively reconcile the inner our outer circumstances of existence.

Or take the sea. Much has been made of the sea, the waves, the salt water out of which life itself is supposed to have emerged. Yet the sea is also full of riptides, undertows, and ferocious gales. It erodes shorelines and its sandy beaches have increasingly become the repository for shards of glass, due to the resurgence in popularity of the long-neck beer bottle

Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a book called Against Nature. It is a novel about a cosmopolitan, a dandy, a lover of the culture of the mind, with a penchant for the perverse. It is also an invaluable antidote to the unrealistic overvaluation of the natural, particularly as it relates to sexuality (an alternate translation of the French title, A rebours, is Against the Grain).

It’s not that nature should be destroyed, the seas polluted, the forests leveled, the fish and cattle killed (not to mention the rodents and reptiles). No, the equanimity of the ecosystem hinges on a more pacifist attitude towards nature. Removing greenhouse gases and preventing a meltdown of the polar ice caps is an obvious priority. No sense in turning polar bears into refugees or leaving seals in a sweat.

But nature is a little like government. Nature doesn’t always have the individual’s best interests at heart. Nature is not necessarily an ally. What is the story of Noah but the first attempt in the history of literature to describe man’s efforts to take up arms against nature? Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was another depiction of the battle between man and a supposedly accommodating habitat. The lack of realism about man’s relationship with nature and beauty borders on the criminal, and in this case it is not a victimless crime.

Let’s face it: nature is overrated. The admiration of nature is purchased at the price of self love. Nature is like the kid who figures out the Rubik’s Cube. Most people just can’t keep up with him. The sublime beauty of the deserted factory may be the best testament to man’s place in the universe. Nature is a con artist creating the impression of mystery, of possessing something that others don’t have. Nature is like the soul who seems to have a monopoly on self-possession. Nature has driven men to suicide, and even murder, when the ugly imperfections of human existence stare them mockingly in the face.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode I

This is Empire of the Sun territory, or better yet Children of Men. Diasporic in feel, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles is a hole in the wall on the corner of Doyers and Bowery, where $5 bowls of noodles come with everything from oxtails to fish balls. You can even call in your order ahead of time.

The owners emanate from Fugian Province. Knife-cut noodles are one of the specialties, and it takes time to knead the dough. The chef looks more like a baker, and the dough could be challah. A sea change is occurring in what it means to eat out. Vestibules replace the huge pleasure domes of Buddakan. Going out has become less a search for pleasure than a quest for a safe refuge where the prices rival the cost of cooking at home. On all counts, Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles fits the bill.

This is post-apocalyptic dining with a prelapsarian feel. You won’t go away hungry, or surprised by hidden charges on the bill, although the steamed dumplings, with their delicate skins, look like subdermal hematomas. Wittgenstein would have appreciated the self-explanatory name—Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles. “The world is that which is the case,” he said.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Short Story of the Year (Thus Far)

“The Fountain House” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (August 31) is the best short story published in the The New Yorker this year. The runner-up is Craig Raine’s “Love Affair with Secondaries” (June 1), and both are coincidentally set in the former Soviet Bloc.

“The Fountain House” is a retelling of Shakeseare’s The Winter’s Tale. A man, heartbroken about the death of his daughter, seeks to bring her back to life, and succeeds. The tone of “The Fountain House” is hopeful, but the hope is so exultant, so extraordinary, so outlandish, that it betrays an underlying despair. Ultimately, the father awakens to the reality of the operating room and the morgue, but in between are marvelous dreams.

In one dream, he brings his daughter her lunch, as he did when she was a young child attending an idyllic summer camp. When he opens the sandwich, he sees an uncooked heart and is afraid his daughter will die if she eats it. He quickly tries to steal it away, but suddenly his daughter’s arms become supernaturally long. He eats the heart himself, thinking he will die, but instead wakes up on a gurney about to give blood.

“The Fountain House” upends the dread of loss and death with the infectious colloquial quality of the great Russian storytellers. The dream sequences recall Akaky Akakievich’s delirium in Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Indeed, when the father seeks out his daughter, he comes across a harassed morgue attendant, a functionary wonderfully dissociated from death. Everyone has been looking for the same body and he is simply annoyed. He has work to do. What do these people want?

The story falls within the surrealist tradition. It is a parable, without a moral, that negotiates freely between humor, aggression, and death. Looming in the background is the mysterious explosion, the potential final scene of the girl dying in her father’s arms, cut and pasted into the story’s second paragraph. The net effect of “The Fountain House” is Sisyphean, the optimism as delightful as it is hard to grasp.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Like Clockwork

There has been much talk about the huge disparities of wealth that emerged in the years leading up to the most recent stock market collapse. Professionals who had spent years of study to obtain degrees in law or medicine found themselves economically marginal in cities like New York, where hedge fund managers put even relatively unremarkable dwellings out of a the reach of a once affluent class. The collapse of the stock market has not improved matters appreciably, since now the glut of available apartments is rendered inaccessible by the insecurities of the job market.

Educational disparities are an even more dispiriting prospect. There are two societies emerging in America. One is developing exponentially higher levels of educational sophistication, while the other is moving in the exact opposite direction. If Anthony Burgess were alive, he would have been the writer to distill the predicament of a culture in which educational anorexia leads to disenfranchisement. The same competitive parents who bought up all the desirable apartments were at the same time fighting to get their children into the best high schools and colleges. When the race is fixed, it’s hard to compete, and there are whole segments of American society that simply refuse to nourish their children on the educational fast-food served up by woefully under subsidized public schools.

Like super rats whose survival skills have been honed in subway tunnels, dead eyed, pistol-packing third graders are the stuff of contemporary urban legend. There are also super rats graduating from Ivy League institutions, the supreme products of our culture of consumption. Whatever the residual truth about the existence of these different species of miscreant, they constitute the cast of a sequel to A Clockwork Orange that has yet to be written. Brutal and self-seeking, speaking languages they barely understand, the super rats that emerge from our institutions of higher learning, or alternatively our prisons, populate a new Inferno. “What doesn’t kill you will make your stronger,” quoth Nietzsche. But certain strengths are adaptable only in the context of pathology, and at what cost?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Debt to Pleasure

John Lanchester wrote the bestselling The Debt to Pleasure during the same period in the late '90s when Long Term Capital Management, the giant hedge fund, failed spectacularly. The fund’s collapse, while surprising at the time, proved to be providential.

English novelist Margaret Atwood addresses debt in her latest work, the book-length essay Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, published as the United States deficit approaches one trillion.

Debt is in the air. Derivatives like securitized mortgages and credit default swaps have increased obligations to the point where the hallowed halls of finance have been shaken to their foundations. Venerable institutions like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers have crumbled, while Bank of America, AIG, General Electric and Citibank wobble as if the ground underneath them were in the throes of a tectonic shift.

Debt is something we all take for granted. Most businesses can’t start up without debt. Without debt, it’s impossible to buy homes, whose prices usually exceed the assets the average family needs to live. Like economies of scale and the division of labor, debt is a centerpiece of any capitalist economy.

But at what point does debt, or pleasure, get out of hand? The title of Lanchester’s book was oddly prescient about the nature of the financial calamities that would strike a decade later.

All debt reckons with the future at the expense of the present. We use money that we don’t have to enjoy something that we will pay for tomorrow. If the value of the object goes up, then we are able to sell it or refinance the debt. If it goes down, we owe even more money. In the subprime mortgage crisis, the value of assets suddenly went down. Why? Because demand, which had been high, decreased until there was a glut of goods on the market.

Why did demand decrease? China holds the mortgage on America. When the payments, which filter down as higher costs to the consumer, get too high, there simply is no money left to pay back the future. Existing loans fail and there aren’t any new prospects to take their place. Demand for goods, like houses, plummets. Blame China? Better yet, blame pleasure.

Hindsight is always 20/20. After the crash of l929, who would have thought that practically the same thing could happen all over again? Sure there were differences. A year ago, there were no cries for margin, no black Tuesday. It was all much quieter. On the screens of computers in somnolent trading rooms the market simply stopped functioning. The financial system froze, as if inhabited by one of those viral worms that infect computers. Life came to a halt and then proceeded to fall apart. It wasn’t as good as science fiction, for it lacked the willing suspension of disbelief. People are still trying to write the story, even though no one wants to believe it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The China Syndrome

In the collective unconscious of the American spirit, China is a black and white Charlie Chan movie with proverb-chanting Charlie played by the Caucasian actor Sidney Toler. China is take-out Chinese food or the Cantonese restaurant, circa 1955, with big oriental shades, Han dynasty murals, and impassive Confuscian waiters in white jackets pulling the silver covers off the #1—egg roll, chow mein and fried rice. China is foot binding (less brutal than the clitorectomy, but torture nevertheless), Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, Mao, the Long March, the rape of Nanking, Zhou En Lai, The Gang of Four, the Cultural Revolution. China is the Forbidden City and the Great Wall as pictured in Richard Haliburton’s Book of Marvels or William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. This sleeping giant epitomizes the Orientalism of Edward Said’s famous essay.

But while the mythology of China festers in the imagination, a real China burgeons. Shanghai has 4000 skyscrapers, which is double that of New York. Embedded within the structure of an ostensibly communist society is an engine of wealth production that cannot be adequately accounted for by the usual terminology—free market, economies of scale, division of labor—employed to describe capitalist production. This new China is a socio-economic chimera, an authoritarian head presiding over a free market body, the overactive superego accommodating the demiurge.

China is science fiction to the extent that its wealth is like a black hole. Imperial America has declined, leaving in its wake stealthy expansion through magnetic pull. China doesn’t invade (with the exception of secessionist provinces like Tibet). Its expansion is by way of attraction rather than promotion.

America is about to be foreclosed on by China, which more than ever holds the mortgage to our property. In The Man in a High Castle, Philip K. Dick envisions the Axis powers winning the Second World War, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America imagines the rise of anti-Semitism as Lindbergh beats Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The WMD of the China novel is bound to be a credit default swap.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Words have personalities. There’s prolepsis, a condition of answering an as yet unasked question, and morganatic, which refers to the untitled bastards of nobility. Inspissation is a thermodynamic word referring to the behavior of high density liquids in narrow spaces.

There’s the neurological term perseveration, which refers to irrational graphic repetitions; limpid, which doesn’t mean what it sounds like; labile, which has nothing to do with the vagina; and the two vens, venial and venal, which have practically opposite applications despite the similarity in sound and appearance.

Then there are the technical words for mental states, like anagnosia, and states of language and meaning such as aporia, which refers to the presence of two equal and opposing views. Now, an aporia is not an oxymoron, since it doesn’t refer to nouns. How to get out of this quagmire, this syzygy, in which the sun moon and earth are aligned, without the help of a quisling, a person who takes after the Norwegian diplomat who was discovered playing both sides against the middle?

Samuel Johnson devoted his life to words, and Boswell devoted his life to the randy, carousing Johnson, but all their words have outlived them. Words are organic in that they are growing, changing, adapting like the multiple cells that populate organs. But unlike organic matter, words never really die. They are transformed by time, but they never seem to falter, even in the case of languages like Yiddish, which experience a life after death. Words can be extant and extinct at the same time. Has the Yiddish oy become a form of preverbal expression, or was the preverbal expression turned into a word? And then there are words and expressions that travel freely between languages, as if they were given some kind of diplomatic passport. Concierge is one of those words that have free passage between England and France.

Words are like clay. They can be molded into wonderful monuments to emotion, or, in the hands of jargonistas, can be turned into the KFC of expression. Narcissism and self-involvement are two words that have summarily been denuded of meaning through indiscriminate, unprofessional use. The city agency that hands out summons for noise should also ticket people who emasculate words like narcissism through after-hours use.

And then there’s feckless. That’s a simple word that hasn’t gotten its due. Feckless has a long way to go before it reaches the breaking point, as is the case with apoptosis, another one of those technical words, albeit one with some degree of poetic significance, to the extent that it refers to cell death.

Logorrhea is diarrhea of the mouth, but it is also a nice word in that it uses its Greek roots to pinpoint a condition that does to words what spendthrift does to money, which is to exhaust resources for the sake of dubious and ephemeral gains. Is this post an example of persiflage?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mad Cows

Opponents of health care reform might be living proof of a need for radical changes in the system, as many of them seem to be suffering from undiagnosed cases of mad cow disease. Known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the disease is transmitted to humans when they ingest the brains or spine of beef that contains damaged proteins known as prions.

Mad cow disease is extremely hard to diagnose and differentiate from other degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, but it is characterized by confusion and memory loss, two characteristics that have been noticeable in opponents of President Obama’s health plan. Dementia and involuntary jerking movements known as myoclonus have also been in evidence at the many tea parties across the country, where grown adults dress up like Benjamin Franklin and rant incoherently about the onset of socialism.

Among the most telling manifestations of mad cow disease in humans are extreme personality changes. When Joe Wilson, the Republican representative from South Carolina, yelled out “You lie!” at President Obama, in an unprecedented break from congressional decorum, it was hypothesized that Wilson might be suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, whose symptoms include involuntary utterances of expletives and salacious or provocative language. But doctors at nearby Johns Hopkins Medical Center quickly speculated that Wilson’s outburst was an early manifestation of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, as mad cow is known in humans.

Mr. Wilson will be allowed to retain his seat despite his condition, as there is currently no legislation on the books that prevents members of congress from voting while suffering from medical impairments. The split down party lines that characterizes the current health care debate, a disorder known to mental health professionals as “ego splitting,” may exemplify a collective form of schizophrenia deriving from other highly contagious neuro-degenerative disorders known to affect the legislative branch.

There is at present no remedy for the outbreak of mad cow disease currently afflicting anti-Obama opponents of health care. But even those with health insurance may find that the disease is not covered by their plans, since in all likelihood it is a pre-existing condition.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Lonely Crowd

What’s the point of going on the Internet to do my social networking if the results are the same as in everyday life? After the initial excitement over the advent of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, there’s now a feeling that online social networking is a little like moving to another city or remarrying. Some people end up getting divorced and marrying the same person all over again—the end result being a loss of their net worth to the former spouse.

Facebook inspires hope due to the prospect of almost infinite connectivity. It’s also a little like going to a masked ball. Yes, everyone sees a face, but the cyber-self, cloaked in mystery, makes instant pundits out of all users. Twitter posts are nothing more than amateur fortune cookies.

The trouble is, the bottom line tends to be the same. The loud and domineering presences, the same ones who insensitively blustered their way to success in the real world, still prevail. Those blessed or cursed with a personality structure that is more subtle and/or reserved are relegated to obscurity in the online social networking jungle.

For Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Myanmar who is again under house arrest, Facebook and other social networking sites may eventually help to mobilize and organize resistance. There is no doubt that social networking’s future lies primarily as a vehicle of social change. That is in fact the paradox of the social networking phenomenon. It gives the illusion of exposing the self, but the impact it creates is chiefly facilitated when an individual becomes part of social group.

Neither Proust nor Kafka would have fared well on Facebook, but propagators of passive resistance like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela might very well have thrived. Though attention getting is the object, Facebook achieves it maximum effect when the face becomes part of the crowd.

As David Riesman pointed out in his classical sociological tome, The Lonely Crowd, it’s the “other directed” rather than the “inner directed” individual who will succeed in modern life. Riesman wrote his book in l950, before Mark Zuckerman, the founder of Facebook, was even a gleam in his grandparents’ eyes, but the same principles define what is transpiring in this newest Erewhon of social networking.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Folders vs. Crumplers

There was an era when human beings could be divided into two categories: folders and crumplers. This was sometime between the invention of modern toilet paper in l857 by Joseph Gayetty and the end of the Cold War. Toilet paper actually goes back as far as the Tang and Yuan dynasties, but its modern form is a product of American ingenuity, and something that has yet to catch on in India, where water is still used for cleansing, but without the power of the modern industrial bidet.

On the most basic level, the folder acted in a premeditated fashion and was capable of the kind of impulse control that allowed him to create a strategy. Conversely, the crumpler was an impulsive, charming sociopath, gifted at extemporization, but with a deficiency in the kind of brain chemistry that allows for sublimation. A crumpler was not likely to turn his sexual energies into art. Rather he would immediately try to fondle the object of his desire.

Due to genetic mutations, this easy dichotomy seems to have changed radically. Just as infidelity, which was all the rage in the America chronicled by O’Hara and Updike, was made obsolete by cybersex, so the easy insight into personality through bathroom folderol started to decline in the last decade of the Twentieth Century.

Both the FBI and CIA, which had used longitudinal studies of wiping patterns to profile world leaders, ceased producing microfiches on the subject in 1995. All Soviet diplomats, from Gromyko to Shevardnadze, had been targeted by intense studies involving interviews with hotel staff who were adept at identifying crumplers based on reports of clogging and requests for plungers emanating from certain V.I.P. suites.

But with the advent of the Putin era, Congress has not appropriated the necessary funds to continue this important research. Within the major think tanks, folding/crumpling is still considered to be an important metric, but the data has become increasingly unreliable.

President Bush was widely regarded as a crumpler, while Dick Cheney was his folding counterpart, or “enabler,” to use recovery movement jargon. Colin Powell represented the new politics, an amalgam of folding and crumpling that epitomized the best of the Hegelian dialetic: thesis (fold), antithesis (crumple), synthesis (origami).

It is hard to come up with a Wikipedia-style entry to describe the fate of folding and crumpling, especially as regards the current administration. Is Barack Obama truly a folder? It’s fun to try to speculate as to whether Timothy Geithner or Hillary Clinton are truly the crumplers they seem to be. (One wonders how crumplers can rise as far as they sometimes do in public life.) But what is emerging is that the old folding/crumpling criteria, which proved such dependable predictors of human behavior in the past, have turned out to be only one way to get the poop on leaders, here and abroad.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Will GM Become a Not-for-Profit?

Not-for-profits are the basis upon which eleemosynary activities take place. Most of these nonprofits, known as 501(c)(3) organizations, are corporations created to support a particular cause. However, with the downturn in the economy, many companies have become de facto not-for-profits, even though they have yet to draft the requisite mission statements to replace their original for-profit goals.

While Citibank did show profits in the last quarter, they have developed a pattern that puts them squarely in the not-for-profit category. Bank of America became a candidate for not-for-profit status when it acquired Merrill Lynch. Bear Stearns might have been rescued from the jaws of JP Morgan Chase when it was on the verge of collapse, and Lehman Brothers might have avoided its fall, if only these two dinosaurs had quit the investment banking business and declared themselves charities.

Though shares in the insurance giant AIG, whose London office singlehandedly engineered the creation of the credit default swaps that brought down the American economy, are trading briskly, this shouldn’t prevent AIG’s board from declaring it a not-for-profit. There is no doubt that AIG runs enough executive dining rooms to allow it to become one of the world’s great soup kitchens. Didn’t Maurice Greenberg, the ousted AIG executive who so vituperatively argued for the competency of his decisions, once say, “Let them eat brioche”?

General Motors would make a great not-for-profit, as would Chrysler. The only question is, would these two automotive giants continue to manufacture cars, or would their assembly lines be better used to produce avant-garde plays in nonprofit venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music? Even if the assembly line is not a proscenium, who’s to say it couldn’t house a theater? We already have theater in the round; the GM plant at Ypsilanti would be a perfect location for theater on the belt.

Who knows what wacky Wachovia will be when it grows up? Can we ever forget that Wells Fargo was once a stagecoach company? What does that mean in terms of its potential viability as a 501(c)(3)? Quite simply it means that once they retire from the business of making money, they’ll have something to fall back on.

Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan need not feel like they are being left out. Sure, they have paid back all their stimulus dollars and are making money hand over fist, but that doesn’t mean that someday they won’t have a chance to find a hallowed place in the not-for-profit world.

As the recent crisis stock market crisis showed, anything can happen, usually overnight. That’s what makes America great.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ang Lee Trips

Ang Lee’s films make retrospective sense. Lust/Caution was mystifying and unsettling, but the forward progression of the film constantly made the viewer rethink what they had already seen. Ultimately, Lust/Caution was a film about the fine line between the willing suspension of disbelief and psychosis as it relates politics, art and sex. Taking Woodstock has a similar effect, with the early scenes feeling slow, sentimental, and in some senses even misguided, particularly in the portrait of Holocaust survivors.

But the subject becomes belief itself, and in particular belief in the notion of liberation. Ang Lee and James Shamus (who like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of the Merchant/Ivory team has become the literary amanuensis to Lee’s sensibility) exude a love of theater in both films. In Lust/Caution, it’s a production of A Doll’s House at a Chinese university as the Japanese invasion looms. In Taking Woodstock, it's a motley theater troupe from Vassar alternately doing Chekhov adaptations and taking off their clothes in the style of Julian Beck’s Living Theater.

There is also a novelistic sensibility at work here that is rare in film directors, who generally ransack novel plots for the purposes of film while eschewing the complexities of novelistic technique. In The Ice Storm and again in Taking Woodstock, Lee shows an ability to totally immerse himself in worlds completely foreign to his personal history. But it’s in the weaving of his tales without the usual resolutions and catharses that Lee shows an uncanny ability to include the kind of complexity more often found in novels than on the big screen.

Taking Woodstock is a succession of loose threads. The protagonist’s homosexuality is portrayed as innuendo rather than with the grand strokes of choice and ideology (so common to film these days). Significantly, the main figure never actually sees the concert for which he has been the prime mover. Meanwhile, his old-world parents, with their old-world fears and animosities, eat some hash brownies and totally loosen up. Yet after an initial white light experience, the refugee mother ends up crawling into a stash of greenbacks she has hoarded for years and falls into a stupor.

As Taking Woodstock makes clear, an enormous change has taken place, but it’s less a watershed than a form of evolution, and doesn’t necessarily yield a higher state of consciousness. If there is a moral center to the film, it’s the transvestite, former marine security guard (played by Liev Schreiber), whose very existence as an imaginative construct is a testament to the dubiety of certainty.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Big German compound words radiate authority. They’re verbal weapons guaranteed to neutralize your opponent.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with the past) and Gesellschaftsgeschichte (the history of society) are the big guns. But even smaller ones can be quite useful, like Fehlleistung (Freudian slip), Wissenschaft (knowledge), and Leidenschaft (a passion of the kind that engulfs Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). It’s truly wonderful how these German compounds produce meaning in the manner of a Hegelian dialectic. Gemeinschaft (society) carries a certain weight, especially when offered up as part of a double barrel, as in the classic sociological text Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.

Vergangenheit means the past, but it sounds like something the Hells Angels might do, or perhaps that’s Vergangenbang.

Then of course there’s Latin. Lucretius wrote De Rorem Naturae, which is translated as The Order of Things, and Seneca’s only comedy is Apocolocyntosis, or The Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius on His Way to Heaven (a long-winded translation if there ever was one). Another favorite is apologia pro vita sua, which means defense of one’s life.

As for the French, only faute de mieux (for want of something better) or the overused plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they are the same) and Louis XV’s famous après moi le déluge come to mind.

Latin has mystique and French is pithy, but the German compound words convey entire ideologies and philosophical systems. Who can ever forget the Nazi’s infamous Lebensborn (fount of life).

In 1066, when William the Conqueror invaded England, he made French the language of the upper classes, leaving the Anglo Saxon of Chaucer, with its German roots, as an indigenous language whose most famous word is still fuck. In Bohemia, the Slavic language that became modern Czech was relegated to the demotic culture, while German became the cosmopolitan language of writers like Franz Kafka. Peter the Great attempted unsuccessfully to Europeanize Russia by adopting French as the language of the aristocracy, though neither Pushkin nor Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Gogol were ever tempted to write their masterpieces in French.

Still, there is nothing like the roar of a German howitzer to perk up someone's ears. It’s like answering “Harvard” when someone asks where you went to school. When conversation drags, a well placed Weltanschauung or Verfremdungseffekt can get things rolling again. The late Pina Bausch founded Tanzteatre Wurpertal—the very name inspires reverence. Then there was the Princess von Thurn und Taxis, whom some people referred to simply as the Princess von buses and taxis.

Several years back, in the TLS, the critic George Steiner breathlessly invoked the Festschrift, commemorating the work of Mircea Eliade, the famed historian of religion. Festschriften are real conversation stoppers in otherwise mundane sentences. One can almost hear some vested scholar with pince-nez at Marburg, Freiburg, Heidelberg or one of the other great German universities whispering somberly, "Und jetzt kommen die Festschriften."

Friday, September 4, 2009


Taking Woodstock is now in theaters. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control envisions a more sinister spectacle—Swinestock. Swine Flu has definitely returned from summer vacation (New York Times, Sept. 4), and comparisons to the recent avian flu scares and the legendary influenza epidemic of 1918 have created a level of apprehension that recalls Stephen King’s novel The Stand.

Back in the spring, Mexico City was closed down by fears of an epidemic, and there are already a number of people who refuse to take public transportation unless they are wearing surgical masks. As the fall progresses, there will undoubtedly be cautious folk who refuse to make out with their lovers.

Depictions of the fears of plague and epidemic have a long a venerable history in art and literature, from Brueghel’s “The Triumph of Death” to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, in which consumption and spiritual sickness are equated.

Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, what compounds the fear in these outbreaks is the residue of irrationalism and superstition that is part of the landscape of human consciousness. Catastrophic thinking is an aspect of imagination, and there is an element of the pathetic fallacy in the hysteria that accompanies the flu epidemic. Is nature mirroring an inner state of corruption?

As if credit default swaps and sub-prime mortgages weren’t punishment enough, nature wreaks its vengeance against human frailty with plagues and epidemics. Maybe the first-born will be spared this time around, but the ferocity of our disasters, both real and conjured, seems to be directly proportional to the conspicuous consumption that characterized the boom years.

Shock and sympathy are the first responses when someone is diagnosed with a cancer, followed inevitably with blame. He or she was too stressed out, didn’t eat well, didn’t exercise. It’s hard to accept the impartiality and indifference of the cosmos. If only ailments were the just punishments for crimes. Then there’d be a cure.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Networking Not Working

Remembrance of Things Past is the ultimate statement about social networking, and perhaps the most profound philosophical meditation on the subject in the canon. But it was written in total solitude. No one was friending Proust when he wrote his famous series of novels in his cork-lined bedroom.

Facebook, the most popular manifestation of the social networking phenomenon, may represent the death of solitude. Facebook is a little like intravenous feeding—its audience is always linked in and hooked up. And while people constantly talk about wanting to get away, to find a little peace and quiet, the lure of the constant party on Facebook, with its incessant friending, is irresistible.

After all, aloneness is anxiety-producing. Humans are born alone and die that way. The only thing differentiating them from animals with similar fates is the consciousness of their predicament.

Facebook thus presents a plethora of philosophical, social and political problems, and potential virtues—the recent Iranian elections proved that social networks can be vehicles for social change. Much of this is addressed in Fortune tech writer David Kirkpatrick’s much anticipated book The Facebook Effect.

On top of the conundrum of solitude, there is the question of identity. Facebook is based on pictures. Could you imagine Proust offering photographs of the real-life characters on which he based Swann or Odette? What does a small thumbnail sized photo tell us about identity? And what of the constant updates about the banal ephemera of every day life? Diarization of the kind found on Facebook and especially Twitter mistakes bathos for honesty. It’s no wonder that Facebook is so popular. It allows the constant feeling of human interaction without the messy consequences of intimacy.

Facebook also removes a sense of place. It’s no longer necessary to go anywhere when you exist in this ubiquitous cybernetic community, with its rules and rituals and mores that so easily replace indigenous culture.

Alain de Botton wrote a book entitled How Proust Can Change Your Life, but he omitted at least one possibility. Just set out to read Remembrance of Things Past and there won’t be any time for Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site.

MySpace or your place? That is the question.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

BJ's for Everyone

The year is 2020. The United States has been foreclosed on by China and the ascendance of discount supermarket clubs is the subject of a U.N. commission report:

“There was a sawing sound coming from behind the meat counter, and every once in a while a cry that sounded like a bleating lamb, but could have been a child. A special all-access pass was necessary to get into the VIP area, where organs were freely traded.

“Many of the Friday-night shoppers had piled their carts with gigantic bags of rolls and the obligatory double-wide family packs of hot dogs. A shipment of Korean-made fuses had just arrived, along with outlet covers, boxes of splints, and cans of blue paint with Cyrillic lettering.

“The ceilings were extremely high but nothing was out of reach. There were no minarets or spires. The architecture radiated space without striving.

“There were darkened flat-screen televisions by the cash registers, obtainable through special promotional programs in which defaulted home mortgages could be traded in for Fun-Bucks. There were also customers who filled their shopping carts with bad loans.

“At the very end of the food court was a small concession where copies of rogue nuclear weapons contracts signed by Abdul Quadeer Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, were sold alongside vintage copies of The New York Times from the moon landing and 9/11. The stand was like a mutant eBay on steroids, with parcels of unprocessed Uranium and low-grade nuclear weapons snapped up by middle-aged women wheeling boxes of fertility drugs.

“High-level intelligence operatives were travelling incognito, relegated to the lower reaches of the food chain, hunting day and night for black-box trading algorithms. Commodities traders fulfilled contracts for 2,400-packs of Diet Coke, while second- and third-generation ARV’s (antiretroviral drugs) were priced by technicians in hospital whites. Live AIDS viruses had yet to become popular discount items.

“One member of management argued that international slave trading, a necessary evil for which there was great demand, would soon be dominated by the large chains.”