Friday, January 29, 2010

His Dark Materials

The Times ran a piece about the search for dark matter (NYT, 12/18/09), the mysterious element that scientists believe may constitute the building blocks of the universe. Producing temperatures of one hundredth of a degree Kelvin—near absolute zero—at the bottom of an abandoned copper mine in Minnesota, a team of scientists that identifies itself as the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search have come tantalizingly close to identifying the residues of the kinds of energy they are looking for. Of course, readers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Milton’s Paradise Lost, upon which Pullman’s enormously popular trilogy is based, will be heartened by research that reveals the scientific underpinnings for what previously seemed to be mere poetic conjecture.
These revelations come not through looking into a telescope, but in effect from creating an environment devoid of cosmic radiation, which can obfuscate the detections of this dark Miltonian world. And what is both compelling and disturbing about the findings is the fact that the universe is expanding.  According to the Times piece, dark matter could constitute the missing piece of a puzzle that includes 4% atoms and 70% dark energy, which, the Times explained, has nothing to do with dark matter, which itself would account for the rest. What the future holds is not the prospect of overcrowding, but of tremendous isolation. If our search for life forms—another recent Times story described the discovery of a sultry, water-covered planet orbiting a distant star—is frustrated by the enormous distances involved in intergalactic travel, it will only get worse in eons to come.  But one thing is for sure: we are unlikely to be plagued by turf wars. By the time one settler is ready to homestead on  a far-off rancher’s lands, the rancher will be long dead.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Diasporic Dining X: The No Food Movement

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Due to advances in brain science, eating is bound to go the way of reading in our electronic age. It will eventually become more practical and rewarding to live life on an intravenous drip. Advances in neuro-sensory stimulation will make it possible to create the effects of a great meal without having to go through the time and trouble of anachronistic activities like mastication, which drain bodily energies away from pure thought. Anesthesia will become the model for the dining experience, with time lapse being one of the central characteristics of the new meal. The only difference will be that anesthesia creates the feeling of no time having passed, while “diners” hooked up to electrodes will actually gain the sense of having experienced a ten or twelve course meal that never occurred. People will be able to enjoy culinary adventures without having to pay the price in terms of caloric intake, trans fats, or the accumulation of arterial plaque. Rigidity and boredom will be avoided through the use of sensory receptors that will allow diners to choose their cuisine of choice by simply flipping a switch once the drip has begun. As in Kubla Khan’s famous pleasure palace, “the patient” will be able to experience a drug-induced euphoria in which the exigencies of everyday reality are temporarily kept at bay, and at a fraction of the cost of a conventional meal.
On a practical level, the average meal, which will now be enjoyed on a gurney, will obviate the need for reservations, priority seating, and lousy service, rendering obsolete such disappointments as getting an overcooked steak when you ordered black and blue. The formality and festiveness will not be lost, as all of the appropriate receptors will be treated in such a way that by meal's end the average diner will walk away with the notion that he's just been feted at a table of close friends. The reality will be that he's been hooked up to the solitude of an indwelling stent. The biggest advances will be in the area of post-prandial effects, which will include minimal amounts of gaseous cloud formation, heartburn, and colorectal insult.

Sunday's Best Chicken Broth by Jesse Millward and Sunset Television.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Two ideas from the world of literature came to mind at a recent screening of Gary Huswit’s Objectified at the Philoctetes Center in New York City. Objectified is Hustwit’s sequel to his first film on design, Helvetica.  (When asked in the post-interview with design guru Steven Heller about the third film of his proposed trilogy, Huswit was elusive, but did reveal that it was about something that was an integral but largely unnoticed part of our daily lives—Water? Vapor? Roads?).
Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” and T.S. Eliot talked about the “impersonality of the artist” in his in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent."  Apple designer Jonathan Ive coalesces both ideas in demonstrating how the design of the MacBook makes advances that don’t call attention to themselves yet maximize the efficiency of the object.   
At one point Rob Walker, design columnist for the Times, encourages consumers to appreciate the objects they have, rather than constantly searching for the new.The camera cuts to several venerable old alarm clocks and a rugged chest of drawers that is clearly an heirloom. There is something mournful in this riff, and Heller alluded to it in the post-film discussion, invoking William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in l9th century England, which resisted industrial design in favor of handmade objects.

Objectified communicates the exponential obsolescence that is the quintessence of modern industrial design. To cite another literary source, modern design is the opposite of Keats’s Grecian urn, conforming rather to Moore’s law, which dictates that smaller and smaller chips will achieve ever-higher capabilities. Of course the quantum chip working on two atoms is the ultimate arbiter. Design has surmounted the old Bauhaus equation. Form may no longer follow function. But where does that leave the rest of us who are doomed to spend our lives trying to figure out how each new gadget works?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Way or the Highway

“My way or the highway!” There was once an entrepreneurial young man, the scion of one of those wealthy, formerly hardscrabble Manhattan families, who loved to use that line. His other favorite was the famous Mel Brooks quip from History of the World: Part I, “It’s good to be the king!” Like the denizens Alexis de Tocqueville describes in Democracy in America, this man had ascended to royalty in the span of one generation, bestowing upon himself the title of Bourbon, after the drink. He was a collector, both of art and women, but had some trouble distinguishing his whores from his wives. He was used to revamping his trove. By the time he was in his late 30s, he’d had three wives, and fathered two boys each with the last two. But he wasn’t just a rich guy who squandered his wealth. He had many hobbies, and whatever he tried his hand at, whether painting or skiing or stamp collecting, he did with great mastery and élan.
He liked to travel everywhere in private planes, and even took helicopters to the heliport on the East River in Manhattan. He wasn’t afraid to live the good life.  He liked to vacation on out-of-the-way islands in the Caribbean, which were more easily reached by private aircraft. He had life down to an art. His car and driver waited for him in the morning, and he rode to work with his St. Bernard in the back seat.

Then one day he took an innocuous trip to New Hampshire in a chartered Learjet.  He was going to attend the annual meeting of the board of trustees of his old prep school.  He flew up with another alumnus, with whom he liked to shoot skeet. His friend had even brought along a pair of rifles. The plane was forced to make a crash landing. Bourbon perished, but his friend walked off the plane unharmed, with his guns in tow, reporting that the rich scion’s last words as the plane went down were, “Oh shit!”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890-1976)

“The Destruction of the Object” (l923) is the show-stopper in the current Man Ray show at The Jewish Museum. The artist—born Emmanuel Radnitzky—had been jilted by his lover of three years, the legendary Lee Miller, and the resulting work, fired in the crucible of his heartbreak, made art-textbook history, a little like the image of the eye ball slit by a razor in Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (l929).  Radnitzky photographed Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Proust (on his deathbed), and Joyce. But it is the image of André Breton in front of De Chirico’s “L’Enigme d’une journée” that is the show’s second most stunning piece. Blend Surrealism with Futurism and what do you get? Something curiously naturalistic, like the metronome in “The Destruction of the Object”—a time capsule sending a nostalgic message back from the past, beyond love and loss.

Radnitzky was bar mitzvahed in Brooklyn, but eventually ended up in Paris in time for Dada and Surrealism, with its infatuation with the spontaneity of the photographic image. He moved to Hollywood, and then returned to Paris at a time when New York had emerged as the center of the art world. “All NewYork is Dada and will not tolerate a rival,” he said. The current exhibit, which includes Radnitzky's first film, Le Retour à la Raison (film stock, successions of geometric images, and a nude that all defy reason), is like a message in a bottle, washed up on some silent shore after bobbing solitudinously at sea.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has already been exterminated, exfoliated and hermaneuticized, and will undoubtedly be the subject of numerous PhD theses. But let’s cut to the chase. The film’s historical context, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarejevo, immediately forces the viewer to pluck out his or her retrospectroscope. Should the viewer call to mind Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which throws cold water on the banality-of-evil theory invoked by Hannah Arendt in Eichman in Jerusalem, or turn to Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power to understand the impending sense of doom and horror that grows amidst Haneke’s astonishing, unflinchingly beautiful set pieces? Christian Berger’s cinematography owes more to Zeno and Parmenides of the Eleatic School of pre-Socratic philosophy than to film-school technique, as his black and white shots strive towards a prison-like stasis. It is almost disturbing to detect motion in some of the compositions, which are interrupted by movements so discreet that we at first mistake them for trompe l’oeil.
Etiology and innocence are the themes that Haneke (The Piano Player, Caché) is playing with, and his mise en scène is virtually inextricable from the narration. The oppressive luminescence of sunlight on snow is one of the recurring images in this exploration of human sadism and childhood’s lack of innocence. The butchering of an already crippled bird, the torture of two children (one retarded), the tripping of a horse and rider, an adolescent put to sleep with his hands tied to preempt masturbation—these are just a few of the images woven into a tapestry of evil that becomes a work of great beauty. Evil beauty is not an oxymoron if we consider The Divine Comedy, or Nancy Milford’s book about Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty. Emily Dickinson's memorable line, “Split the lark and you’ll find the music,” gives a hint what Haneke’s getting at, only in this case it’s the music that leads to a dead bird. One can’t help can’t help but think of Bergman’s Winter Light. Haneke’s stern pastor is a dead ringer for Gunnar Bjornstand, who plays a similar role in the Bergman film. The two cinematic personae are due for a tête a tête.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Jacques the Fatalist

If I hadn’t gone out of the house, I wouldn’t have gotten a ticket. If I hadn’t decided to take the last run of the day on the ski slope, I wouldn’t have broken my leg. If only I hadn’t said what I thought, I might still have gotten the job, the lover, saved the friendship, won the contract. All of these conditional statements are based on the notion of free will, on the idea that we live in a rational universe. As the existentialist philosophers stated, existence precedes essence. We are all-powerful, to the extent that we are all decision makers. Another point of view would have it that action is the result of a long chain of circumstance. I was doomed to go out of the house because I was restless and suffer from a chronic case of ADD, which makes it impossible for me to sit still. I have an impulse disorder that makes it impossible for me to understand the negatives attached to this or that action. Just one more time, I thought, as I decided to brave the icy slope in the dark, unable to realize how tired I was and how fatigue had impaired my judgment. Mania and narcissism make it impossible for me to understand that the motives I impute to others are simply my own. When I see rejection in my lover’s preoccupation, I am only projecting my own behavior on to her. Not everyone reacts in the same way. My distrustful outburst and its consequences were the result of my own fabrications. Ditto the friendship and the job. Then there is the Calvinist analysis, which sees no room for the subject at all. Predestination rules the universe, and our attempts to out-think destiny lead to inanition and ultimately death. I was meant to get the ticket, to break my leg on the ski slope, to lose the lover, the job and the contract, since all men are ultimately little Jobs with no control over a fate that is ultimately adverse. We all wish to win the jackpot, and as life draws closer to its inevitable conclusion, we constantly raise the ante in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Living Badly is the Best Revenge

Because it is difficult, nigh impossible, to accept the inevitability of death, we do things to deny this reality by overestimating the importance of trivial things. It is not the Ding an sich, as Kant called it, that is important. It is the fact that the Ding has been elevated to a privileged level. Are you willing to die to prove that you will not be prodded by some tailgater out of the lane you are driving in? Are you willing to become so agitated about a steak coming out well done when you ordered it black and blue that you risk having a heart attack due to persistent type-A personality behavior? The answer is yes, if you are in complete denial about the existence of an aging process in which the hard wiring of the body is eventually bound to falter.
We could take a more philosophical view about many things that happen to us, under the notion that life is short, and it pays to create as much happiness as possible for oneself and others on any given day. On the other hand, creating happiness for oneself and others might be an admission that life is short, while having a horrible time and making life miserable for everyone around you might be a way of waving the banner for immortality and invulnerability. After all, isn’t the greatest insult to the individual’s importance the fact of his or her total insignificance? Even the biggest loser in the world, nearing his last day, holds the faint hope that he will triumph and endure against all odds. Even the human being who has contributed next to nothing to society lives with the delusion of self-importance. Living Well is the Best Revenge is the title of a book about the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, expatriate Americans who were part of the Hemingway and Fitzgerald crowd. But maybe living badly is the best revenge.  No matter how bad today is, there’s always tomorrow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Prisoner

Locked-in Syndrome is the subject of the Julien Schnabel film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the book of the same name by French journalist and author, Jean-Dominique Bauby. In the current New York Review of Books, the brilliant NYU political philosopher Tony Judt reveals his struggle with a form of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Judt describes becoming a prisoner of his own body, to the extent that he is no longer able to attend to any of his own needs. Pleasure becomes secondary when a minor itch can be a source of torment. Nighttime and sleep can feel like abandonment, the anxiety only assuaged by the presence of the baby monitor. The miracle, and the nightmare, is the brain’s ability to function even when it is the very element that has caused the body to stop functioning. This dualism is only part of the incongruity described in the horror story that Bauby and Judt tell with disconcerting vividness.
How can prose soar when the body is tethered to the ball and chain of neuro-muscular collapse? Compensation is certainly part of the story. Oliver Sacks has spent a good deal of his career detailing how the loss of one or another faculty can result in the creation of new talents and capacities. V.S. Ramachandran’s phantom limb hypothesis also comes to mind. The mind’s ability to project an alternate reality as a means of coping with trauma is bewildering.  The massive neurological failure described by Judt goes beyond the loss of hearing or sight.  Helen Keller was at least able to get up and walk. She could swallow, feel, and scratch that itch. For Judt, the very act of writing the article is a testament to the richness of his inner life, and a challenge to the descriptive power of predictable words like aspiration and hope. Why live when there is nothing to live for? Judt does not undergo a transcendent, white light experience, but neither does he appear to be the victim of what we would normally define as despair. For starters, he is graced with the will to dictate his thoughts.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dinner at Eight

There is a certain type of litigiousness that takes the form of parsimony. Who would have believed that the arc of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André would result in Wally Shawn, with his sparing, deer-in-headlights interlocutions, eliciting a searing indictment of his witness?

The initial argument of the now-classic film, recently revived at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, is this: to feel alive is to be acutely aware of the imminence of death. The eponymous protagonist, André Gregory, will go to any length to avoid the routine and mechanical behavior that renders life devoid of its exultant uniqueness. There are no roles left in the theater, Gregory insists, no Gordon Craigs, no Eleanor Duses, since people in modern life are so busy acting out their own roles. Only in extreme experiences that strip away costume, only through climbing Mt Everest or journeying to the Polish wilderness to study with the legendary director Jerzy Grotowski, can one approach an authentic experience of reality.

I don’t buy any of this Shawn chimes in mischievously. I like my coffee in the morning. I like my little plays. I like to go to the occasional party. I like to see my wife. I don’t need Everest. I don’t believe in omens. I look at fortune cookies, but I don’t believe that someone in a fortune cookie factory actually knows anything about me.

What Louis Malle created in My Dinner with André is an old fashioned Socratic dialogue, in which the central issues of life and death, transcendence and acceptance, are dealt out like a hand of cards. The film, made in l981, is as immortal as any of the great Greek dramas. Louis Malle’s transparent style of direction makes a great work of fiction look like a documentary.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Twilight Zone New Year’s Marathon II: "Death’s Head Revisited"

It’s American television, so the nationality of the portly central character is telegraphed by his fake German accent. He has returned to the small Bavarian town of Dachau, site of the former concentration camp. The receptionist at the hotel, dressed in native folk garb, nervously answers his questions about the camp. The gentleman, a former Nazi living in South America, wanders into the now deserted camp, where he meets the apparition of a former inmate, Becker, whom he had sentenced to death shortly before the Americans arrived.  Becker is still adorned in his prisoner’s stripes, but the roles are reversed. He is now the interrogator. At first, the former Nazi scoffs at the notion that one of “the pigs” would interrogate an SS officer, but when he attempts to leave, he finds that the gates are locked.
The Nazi throws himself against a stanchion and is knocked unconscious. He was once the mouthpiece for irresponsibility, claiming that he was only taking orders. Now his punishment will be to live through all the tortures he inflicted, from being strung up over a hot pipe, to marching in the cold, to being the subject of unspeakable experiments on the human body. He soon goes insane and is discovered by a German doctor, who says that the man is suffering a madness in which he actually experiences excruciating pain.  The doctor blames this insanity on the proximity of the camp, and exclaims that he doesn’t understand why the camp, which is a reminder of a kind of evil that would drive anyone mad, is allowed to exist. It would be so much easier, the doctor insists, to destroy both the structure and the memories it elicits.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Notes from The Twilight Zone New Year’s Marathon: "The Arrival"

A plane lands, but there are no disembarking passengers or luggage.  Ground crew personnel are afraid they are going crazy, but the airline’s managers, confronting a public relations disaster, confirm the bizarre truth: the flight landed with neither passengers nor crew.   
What has happened to flight l07? An official from the FAA appears on the scene to interview the employees. It’s troubling he says, but he has gotten to the heart of even the most puzzling of mysteries. Still, it’s odd: hours have passed and no relatives of any passengers have called.  He soon concludes that the plane doesn’t exist. It’s all a form of mass hypnotic suggestion. He asks the members of the ground crew and management to read off the wing numbers, and each comes up with a different series. And no one can agree on the color of the seats. One saw blue, another brown, and yet another purple. The FAA official decides to submit himself to an experiment. He asks that the engine be started up. He will walk into the turning propeller. If he is right, he will live. If not, he asks simply that his wife be notified. He walks into the propeller, and nothing happens.
The mystery deepens when the plane vanishes, along with all the supernumeraries, save the FAA official. Alone, he walks through a deserted hangar to the airline’s offices. He runs into several of his old cohorts, but no one recognizes him or understands what he is talking about. No plane has gone down. Flight l07 arrived safely from Buffalo. In its history, the airline has only lost one plane, the only unsolved case the inspector has ever confronted—that of flight l07 from Buffalo, which disappeared l7 years before. “We always found a cause!” the inspector cries, confronting the reality of his madness.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

No Exit

The car was once a symbol of human freedom, but all that is about to change. Interstate highways will become like airports, with traffic controllers assigning times for take-off and arrival. Either that or no one is going to get anywhere. Freedom is the price to be paid to insure that travelers make it into urban hubs after they land at Heatherow, Charles de Gaulle, or Kennedy. The rush-hour traffic from airports is only the tip of the iceberg. I-95 leading in and out of Manhattan on the Bruckner Expressway is the physical approximation of the feeling created by a stalemate in chess.

Americans in particular cherish the notion of the open road. For anyone growing up in the fifties, driving was a rite of passage, not only because of the test that was required to obtain a license, but also because of drive-ins and diners of the kind immortalized in the famed Barry Levinson film. Now cars will morph into pods, which in turn will become advanced information collectors.  If the E-ZPass seems like an optional convenience, realize that in the future it will be a means of tracking and recording the comings and goings of a majority of the population.  The advent of this form of Big Brotherhood will not be ideological, but rather the result of an evolution in technology to the point that the complex thermodynamics of flow can only be addressed by lessening the effects of viscosity in the plumbing of the arteries. Put another way, society will need a blood thinner to avoid a myocardial infarction, but the result will be that the patient is no longer free to eat, or come and go, as he or she pleases.