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.