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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Road More Traveled

Truth be told, most people in our day and age take the road more traveled—even those millions who have read the M. Scott Peck bestseller named after the Robert Frost poem. It’s a pleasant enough poem. It implies that the less obvious ways of doing things and seeing the world, the unconventional ways, yield unexpected rewards. But it has nothing to do with the vicissitudes our modern Interstate highway system.

For instance, a traveler recently endeavored to go from Burlington, Vermont to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The road less traveled was Route 7, which passed through many interesting towns the traveler might not have had a chance to see had he chosen a shorter route involving an Interstate highway. Unfortunately, the road less traveled added an extra hour and a half to the trip. Yes, it enabled the traveler to see Middlebury and Bennington, but it was totally dark by the time he arrived in Great Barrington. If he had taken the road more traveled, he would have missed Bennington and Middlebury, but seen Great Barrington.
Even though Shirley Jackson and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived out their troubled lives in Bennington, Great Barrington is more of a crossroads, situated as it is in the Berkshires, in close proximity to both Tanglewood and Lenox, where Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, is still preserved.  Middlebury sports a typical New England college campus, with wholesome stone buildings and a strong whiff of winter sport. It’s also the home of a famed A&W Root Beer stand, where waitresses still roller skate up to your car to take your order. But let’s face it, if you you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
What would Rogers E. M. Whitaker, the famed New Yorker writer, who wrote his famous train column under the pseudonym E.M. Frimbo, have said about the road less traveled?  No idea. Just a thought.
Times have changed. The fact is that the road more traveled is usually the shortest distance between two points, and often leads to greater spiritual insights. For instance, had the traveler reached Great Barrington on the earlier side, he might have had time to attend a seven o’clock meditation at the Congregational Church, or to browse the famous Book Barn, one of the greatest used bookstores in New England, located on an otherwise deserted back road deep in the woods near the town.
On the other hand, if the traveler is tuned in to NPR, it hardly matters whether he takes the road less traveled or the road more traveled. It might make sense to take the road less traveled if it’s Saturday night at six and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion is on the radio. On the other hand, if it’s a Sunday afternoon, an ambitious driver on the road more traveled might squeeze in Ira Glass’s This American Life, followed by All Things Considered, and still arrive in time to unpack before dinner. In the twenty-first century, the decision to take the road less traveled isn’t about nonconformity. It’s about scheduling. There is a reason why the road more traveled is more traveled. Like modern love for David Bowie, it gets you to the church on time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Depth

Will “boundary violation” ever be restored to its pristine meaning of a border dispute between countries, rather than the current psychological jargonese referring to an intrusion into someone's personal space? It makes you wonder about how language gets hijacked to describe inner states. What is anxiety? What depression? What the depraved indifference to human life of the sociopath? 
To be human is to be neurotic, so why refer to something according to Merriam Webster if it only constitutes a slightly lesser form of distortion than psychosis itself? Why does narcissism get such a bad rap? Narcissus was no different than a lot of other people who fall in love with themselves. Those whose interests fall consistently within the self are described as “self involved,” but how do these egotistical individuals differ from so called “normal,” perceiving selves, filled with appetites and desires that are reflective of bodily needs? Is the need to defecate or urinate a sign of self-involvement? Is sexual discharge selfish?
An epistemological cop is needed to police the systems of knowledge gathering and categorization. Pop psychology lacks depth, while depth psychology merely describes the epidermis, but lacks guts.
Sea Hunt, the popular ‘50s radio program and TV series, was more than an adventure series. It was one of the first televised attempts to represent unconscious thought processes, succeeded by The Avengers with Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee. Is it more profitable to visit the Museum of Broadcasting than to undertake therapy? It’s certainly less expensive, especially if your disposable income is invested in tax-free municipals.
This or that pronunciamento is regarded as a profound meditation on man’s place in the universe. But what can be deeper than the sound of the bubbles an aqualung makes as it accompanies divers under water? What’s more fearful than the clash of metal as a submarine torpedo makes contact with a destroyer? Speaking of depth psychology, Jacqueline Bisset’s opening wet tee shirt seen in The Deep (l977) should be added to the syllabus.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode III

Every 8 seconds a new baby is born in the United States. That’s 15 babies in the last two minutes. But have you asked yourself how many new Dunkin’ Donuts have opened in that span of time? Even if you figure in a much shorter gestation period, Dunkin’ Donuts’s parents must fuck like bunnies. The proliferation of Dunkin’ Donuts has unleashed a jihad of food fundamentalists willing to throw themselves from the frying pan into the fire.

Since Dunkin’ Donuts is not a form of organic life and doesn’t contain DNA or the messenger protein RNA (which would enable it to transform into a retrovirus), what accounts for its enormous growth? The answer may be found in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, for donuts are a mood-altering, addictive substance.

The glazed variety is the OxyContin of donuts. It is a painkiller, which when inhaled can produce feelings of euphoria. Then there are the crullers, with their rococo architecture, the iced strawberry with sprinkles, the custard filled, the chocolate covered, the sugar dusted, and the spicy cinnamon. They sound like characters from a sequel to Debbie Does Dallas.—“Spicy’s in the sack with Dusty!”

There was the thousand years of Rome, the Napoleonic Dynasty, and the British Empire. What kind of global dominion is brewing in Dunkin’ Donuts’s famed coffee? Is it a nation-state, a fiefdom, or a monarchy, like the House of Windsor (or the House of Pancakes)? Let’s face it: Dunkin’ Donuts is as ubiquitous as water and potentially more plentiful. It has cracked the space-time continuum by being in all places at all times, impervious to past or present, producing the accord between the general and special theories of relativity that Einstein failed to deliver.

The creators of Dunkin’ Donuts have no beef with science or culture. They have nothing to prove. Whether or not Dunkin’ Donuts conforms to the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics or string theory is irrelevant. It’s like the guy who says, “I can’t complain,” when you ask him how things are going. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t aspire to greatness, only triumph. Armed with hot coffee and jelly donuts, it is now on the verge of an exploit that eluded both Hitler and Napoleon—conquering the Russian winter.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Life is Elsewhere

Life is Elsewhere is the title of a novel by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. It is a phrase that was graffitied on Paris walls by student revolutionaries during the riots of ’68. George Carlin famously quipped, “I’m into a lifestyle that doesn’t require my presence.” In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Clov asks Hamm, “Do you believe in the life to come.” His response: “Mine was always that.”

Oliver Sacks’s recent essay on asylums in The New York Review of Books is a reminder that not all mental institutions are snake pits, and that in the 19th century, some asylums offered the possibility of companionship and community for those who had inadvertently opted out of so-called normalcy. In The Divided Self, another ‘60s artifact, R.D. Laing argues for schizophrenia as a viable form of existence characterized by forms of expression that have value in and of themselves, and that are not only significant as manifestations of mental illness.

When the stock market moves from inflated values to values more commensurate to the equities they reflect, financial analysts call it an adjustment . Whether for reasons financial, political, or geological, the earth seems to be in the throes of something more drastic than an adjustment. It is wobbling on its axis, both metaphorically and literally. Tectonic and climatic shifts have caused massive upheavals, taking the forms of tsunamis in Southeast Asia, flooding in the Southwest United States, drought in Africa, and the melting of polar ice caps. It was recently reported that in the next 10-15 years, shipping companies may no longer have to use the Panana Canal, as they can make their way through the North Pole, thus shaving thousands of miles off their trips. But this savings has been achieved at a cost, and not only in environmental terms. Technological advancement has been met with the equal and opposing rise of fundamentalism, with triumphs of reason overshadowed by desperate millenarian passions.

Every age has its upheavals, its plagues, its inquisitions. In the twelfth century, the Arab world, now so fraught with the ravages of war and religious strife, was the seat of advanced science, with polymathss like Averroes making historic contributions. Today, globalism has compounded the effects of local upheaval. Modern transportation exports viruses and violence with equal efficiency. A once economically viable society like Iceland finds its whole financial system in danger of collapse due to the alacrity with which it leveraged its investments abroad.

Can we still refer to Imperial America when talking about a country whose deficit exceeds the trillion-dollar mark? And when and how do changes in the bulwarks of a society filter down to the foot soldiers of the everyday life? Astronomers believe that a meteor hitting the earth may have caused the ice age, eradicating a huge reptilian population. Which economic or meteorological scourge will hasten the onset of the newest stage of evolution, and where will it lead? Will life still be here—or elsewhere?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Diasporic Dining: Episode II

The one-time peep show gardens, with their topiaries of prostitutes and porn palaces, like Les Gals and the famed Triple Treat Theater, with its mesmerizing XXX sign, are all gone now. In the halcyon days, there was the GG's Barnum Room, where pre-op transsexual prostitutes swung from trapezes. There was Legz Diamond, which still exists in neutered form, where totally naked lap dances led straight to the VIP room.

Peep show booths with their smell of disinfectant; the change belt of the shills; tokens going in the slot; girls there for the asking twenty-four hours a day; women with lactating breasts. The antecedents reach further back, to Depression-era America with its travelling carnival—bearded women in cages, phrenological singularities, prodigious dwarfs whose feat was to hoist their own monstrous heads.

Evenings ended at the Terminal Bar opposite the Port Authority, with its Fellini cast of zoot suits and collagen lips.

The deterioration of Times Square is complete. The hookers and hustlers are gone. There are no gay movie theaters populated by characters from Midnight Cowboy, no world out of which Martin Scorsese could steal the immortal lines of Travis Bickle.

42nd Street has been overrun with chain stores, the New Jersey mall at the intersection of Routes 4 and 17 transplanted into the middle of Manhattan, clothed, depersonalized, stripped of its stripping. This is one transplant that the body politic has not rejected.

The girls no longer stream into the Port Authority, Joyce Carol Oates characters from upstate ending the journey at Phoenix House. Now the streets are so crowded with glazed-eyed gawkers it’s impossible to move. Junk is what they called heroin back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but now there aren’t enough rehabs to accommodate all the junk food addicts wandering the streets on their trans fat highs.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Dante spends a good part of the Divine Comedy cataloguing the acts of sinners. He considered some sins worse than others—a sentiment that isn’t always reflected in the inconsistency with which society metes out its retributions. For instance, there are still states where sodomy is a crime, while there are other communities, like Key West, Florida, where refusing to be sodomized, in either the gay or straight communities, results in a totally different kind of punishment—banishment. The Hester Prynnes of Key West wear their scarlet letters for failing to perform fellatio.

Bigamy is openly flouted in Utah, even though it is a federal crime. In some states, failing to pay income taxes is considered evasion, while in New York City, sheltering income is regarded as a sign of sophistication. The oppression of women is plainly looked on as a sin in most areas of the Western world, while in the Middle East women who rebel against prescribed roles can be stoned or flogged. In recent cases, women have been sentenced to lashings for drinking beer or wearing pants, and in some countries women are routinely punished for being raped.

Eliot Spitzer resigned to avoid impeachment for hiring the services of the Emperor’s VIP Escort Service. Bill Clinton was impeached for his sexcapades, even though he didn’t go all the way, while the dalliances of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King round out their revered mythologies. Other greats in the pantheon of adulterous lust include Tolstoy, Pushkin, Victor Hugo, George Simenon, Picasso, and Matisse, to name just a few. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets a slap on the wrist for attending nude soirees with women who are not much older than his 18 year-old daughter, whose birthday he doesn’t have time to attend. Applying a more philosophical approach, Gandhi tested his ability to eschew worldly desire by sleeping next to naked virgins.

There are those who literally get away with murder, like the drug dealer Nicky Barnes. And then there are those who get life terms for possessing relatively small quantities of drugs, under New York’s archaic Rockefeller laws. In California, three convictions can get you a life term, regardless of the crime. And the old adage about having sex with a minor, “fifteen’ll get you life,” is probably exaggerated—in most states, fifteen is more likely to get you fifteen.

The current period of scarcity that has followed in the wake of reckless abundance has left a legacy of fraud in its wake. An entire cabal of elected officials in the city of Hoboken was recently rounded up in a major kickback scandal. Americans ponied up billions in tax dollars so failing banks could pay outsized bonuses to executives.

Jonathan Pollard got life without parole for giving secrets to an ally, while a second trial acquitted Claus von Bülow of the murder of his wife Sunny, who died last December after 28 years in a coma. Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi, became the head of the UN, while Comrade Duch, the notorious head of Tuol Sleng prison, claimed he was just doing his job. The suicide bomber takes comfort in his saintly status, while the CIA operative waterboards detainees to save American lives. Victims confoundingly identify with their torturers in what is known as the Stockholm syndrome. When it comes to justice, only one thing is certain: the guilty, as in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, are their own worst judges.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Opium Wars

It’s not surprising to discover that Iran has been building a weapons-grade nuclear reactor near the holy city of Qum. War and religion have gone hand in hand since ancient times, the conjunction of the two seemingly opposing phenomena reaching its apotheosis with the Crusades in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, the most fought-over piece of real estate in the world is Palestine, the cradle of the three Adamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The expression “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to mind in response to this contrariety of human nature. What is religion but an organized aspiration for the greater good? But curiously, the desire to disseminate good works and helpful information has historically ended in violence.

Family life is a microcosm of religious wars, and what greater description of domestic conflict than the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs and their rivalrous broods? Parents pass on experience to their children, who find the phenomenology tainted by an outlook they consider foreign to their own. Baby boomers who became the flower children of the ‘60s were perennially at odds with their Depression-era parents, who unwittingly educated their children into an opposing worldview. Few graduates of elite colleges would cotton to Polonius’s famous advice to Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

The other thing that religion and war have in common is the notion of an army. An army of believers is hardly distinguishable from a military army, and members of both subsume the self to a higher authority. As Shinto kamikazes and Islamic suicide bombers illustrate, belief is a powerful weapon that can produce destructive, not to mention self-destructive, results. Very few modern religions have been founded on principles of skepticism, and few would subscribe to Wittgenstein’s famous last proposition from his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence,” which limits the possibility of grandiose proclamations.

Many of the most violent battles of the past decades have been in places where there is religious conflict, whether Serbia and Croatia, Afghanistan, Israel, or Sudan. (Curiously, the First and Second World Wars were secular conflicts motivated by desires for political and economic hegemony). Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The French philosopher Raymond Aron went on to say, “Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals.” In the l9th century, the British fought the Opium Wars with China. But aren’t all wars opium wars? Religion just happens to be the most powerful opiate that fuels the delirium.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blackmail for Dummies

Forget Letterman. What about all those people who are dying to be blackmailed, even though they’re not hiding any sexual peccadilloes, and in fact have no sex life at all? Imagine blackmailing some lonely widower whose sole enjoyment in life is watching “The Wire” while eating a Salisbury steak TV dinner. Wouldn't a good blackmailing add a little zing to his life?

From a moral standpoint, it’s easy to become a talk show host and have sex with staff members, while making wisecracks about the sins of rollers high and holy. It’s about as easy as playing Eliot Ness while employing the services of a VIP escort service. Client 9, aka Eliot Spitzer, met Ashley Alexandra Dupre, his rock n’ roll hooker, in room 871 of The Mayflower, the legendary Washington Hotel where Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers were handed over to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. Talk about a lack of sophistication.

To get blackmailed, it’s necessary to be on a search, and not the kind of search that motivates Bix Bolling in Walker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer. Bix, like Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger and Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishement, seeks something that goes beyond the gratification of the senses. People who commit philosophical crimes, even if they’re accompanied by murder and mayhem, should be exempt from blackmail.

It’s easy to get blackmailed if that is what you’re after. Go to a serious prep school and then some Ivy League colleges and law schools, become a governor in the Northeast, or make it as a network talk show host, or become a Republican senator from a Western state. Perhaps even mouth off about how William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale didn’t go far enough. Getting blackmailed is easy. Just do all of the above and then “shit where you eat.”

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sex Tips for Seniors

The metaphysical poets regarded every sexual consummation as a tiny death. Of course, studies have shown that, among the elderly, the imminence of death is inversely proportional to the frequency of sexual activity—something Marvell and Donne would undoubtedly have been thrilled to hear. But speaking of endgame scenarios, Nagg and Nell, the aging couple encased in garbage cans in Samuel Beckett’s classic drama, offer a heartening depiction of the wealth of sexual possibilities available to couples in their golden years.

The fact is that geriatric sex opens up a world of opportunity, with dementia unlocking the doors of inhibition. Retirement colonies are notorious for STDs, and rape is not uncommon. The French author Héléna Marienské sets her racy novel Rhésus in an old-folks home whose residents are invigorated by the introduction of a free spirited Bonobo.

Cialis ads on television advertise sexual readiness that lasts for 36 hours, so that old-timers can be ready when the time is right. Is there a Princess “cruise to nowhere” that offer Cialis and Lipitor cocktails with little umbrellas right before Bingo?

Carpe diem should be the byword for all aging couples when it comes to sex. What happens when an 85 year-old woman tells her husband she’d rather wait until tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes?

The painter Lucien Freud was the poet of imperfection, and his portraits of unwieldy naked figures (like overweight performance artist Leigh Bowery) are liberating to aging couples who feel inhibited about the exhibitionist romps that are the joy of foreplay. On the other hand, Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” with its luscious study of wide-open feminine glory, is hardly the appropriate prescription for an aging woman who is self conscious about her vaginoplasty.

Every Sunday, The New York Times Book Review offers an ad featuring a photo of a very well preserved couple demonstrating their lovemaking techniques for any audience willing to buy the DVD. There are two programs offered, one for beginners, and one for aficionados who are seeking post-graduate degrees. The appearance of these ads, week after week, leads to one conclusion. The New York Times Book Review appeals to an older audience.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Out, Out Bright Spot

It was Sharon Tate who first predicted that her husband would end up making an adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Nastassja Kinski starred in the 1979 film, and now, like one of the characters in Hardy’s novel, the director sits in a Swiss prison cell, society exacting its vengeance 31 years after Polanski fled sentencing for statutory rape.

In a recent Times Op Ed piece, screenwriter and novelist Robert Harris faults Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. The screening of the well-received documentary at Sundance, Harris argues, excited Polanski’s desire to prove his innocence, thereby daring the Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley to prove that no amount of talent, celebrity, or notoriety puts a man above the law. If Polanski had continued to walk softy through his cherished international stomping grounds, if he had not had the hubris to believe that he could test laws he had spent years flaunting, then he might have returned from the Zurich Film Festival to the comfort of his Paris home without incident. Instead, he sits in a Swiss jail, guilty in fact, but begging for exoneration due to extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, the legal system cannot do justice to the complexity of human existence the way a great novel can. Tess is guilty of murder, but innocent by circumstance, just as Polanski is guilty of rape, and now entrapped by a fateful miscalculation, which led him to seek a pardon that the law would not grant. Once his appeal failed, he protested his innocence by behaving like a man who has nothing to fear. This might seem understandable for a Holocaust survivor whose wife was brutally murdered and who then succumbed to a temptation of the flesh. But it’s hard to let go of the image of an impish, irreverent genius who ruined a young girl's life. Is he callous, indifferent, unrepentant, or merely reacting to the consequences of an original trial which many deemed to be unfair (particularly as regards the behavior of the trail judge)? The fact that the girl now protests that she has long since forgiven Polanski is almost irrelevant to the moral and judicial issues the case poses.

From the point of view of law, it’s an open and shut case; in fiction, it’s an essay on the fallibility of the moral universe; and in life it fills the observer with what Aristotle defined as the two ingredients for tragedy—fear and pity. Classical theories of tragedy also introduced the notion of the fall of a great man. Well Polanski might not be great, but his early film Knife in the Water is a masterpiece. Rent it.