Friday, April 30, 2010

The Drunken Boat

When you first hear that someone is suffering from an illness, romantic rejection, or financial setback, you respond with instantaneous demonstrations of sympathy, obligatory offers to do whatever you can (which is usually nothing), and self-congratulatory wails of indignation (which barely mask the schadenfreude—yes, like larceny, there is a little joy in others' suffering in everyone). But response to calamity is incremental. It comes in little waves. First there is shock, then relief (that it is not you), and then the blaming begins. They ate badly and didn’t do anything about the stress (victims of heart disease and cancer), didn’t really mind the books (financial disaster), didn’t see the writing on the wall (love). Calamity is frightening not so much for what it does to others, but because it can happen to you. But at least you can be assured that the victims of tragedy were responsible for their own demise. What a relief! All one has to do is avoid what unfortunate X, Y or Z does, and you won’t get cancer, fail in business, or lose a lover. Better yet, you won’t lose a business to a loved one who runs away with someone else because they’re afraid they’re dying of cancer and want to live for today! The unfortunate aspect to this reasoned approach to human loss is that it isolates the victim. Yes it’s bad, but if you have as little to do with him or her and go out of your way to avoid emulating their behavior, then you will be spared. It was sad about all those who went down with the Titanic, but none of this would have happened if they hadn’t taken a boat.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Bourgeois Mind

Nicholas Berdyaev wrote a book called The Bourgeois Mind, a title that is intriguing because it encompasses so much of modernity, from Bovary, to Babbitt, to Thorston Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption. But any lab examination of a bourgeois mind preserved in formaldehyde would surely demonstrate that the oppressed populace Frantz Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth has no monopoly on dissatisfaction. H. Rap Brown once said that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” So is rebellion. The flappers of the Jazz age gave way to the nice girls who fell for rebels and criminals. The Jean Seberg character in Godard’s Breathless is the prototypical American innocent who falls for the criminal. What was a nice Jewish girl like Hettie Cohen doing with the proto black nationalist who was to change his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka? Read her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones. Today white suburban kids constitute the biggest audience for the violent lyrics of rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog.
In The Loneliness of the  Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the British novelist Alan Sillitoe distilled England’s class hatred for dissatisfied sixties baby boomers who enjoyed all the advantages of an emerging prosperity. Sillitoe, who died this past Sunday, April 25, created a crucible of class consciousness that fueled the revolutionary aspirations of a whole generation of youthful Americans, whose art house excursions (both Loneliness and Saturday Night were made into classic movies with such cinema greats as Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, and Rachel Rogers) to theatres like the Paris and the Thalia in Manhattan provided the launching pad for rioting against what they deemed to be the empty values and aspirations of their parents. John Osborne is one of the few “angry young men” whose message seems to survive its periodicity. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is still occasionally performed, and Jimmy Porter has achieved iconic status in the pantheon of rebels whose cause was basically life. Yet the gritty world out of which Sillitoe came, and from which his writing provided an escape, left an indelible imprint on the sons and daughters of an age of prosperity who were contriving their own escape—in this case from the hard won comforts of the merchant and professional class. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Age of Acquirius

This could very well be the beginning of a new age! If China revalues the renminbi, the two-state solution finally gains traction in the Middle East, Google acquires the rights to most of human thought, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il finally acknowledges his polymorphic perversity and stops trying to silence critics of his dictatorship, then we can only assume that the problem of cold fusion will soon be cracked. Imagine a world in which energy is no longer something that major powers fight over. As Freud once said about analysis, once it’s over, the real problems begin. If we accept Marx’s analysis, the drive for economic hegemony infuses international politics. Without the struggle for resources, life will lose its meaning and many world leaders will walk around with sunken eyes, like Max Von Sydow losing his game of chess with Death in The Seventh Seal. 
What will this new age be called? The Age of Acquirius. When Wall Street is battered as it was in the past year, analysts say that the market is making an adjustment. Wasn’t Period of Adjustment the name of a Tennessee Williams play, later made into a movie starring Jane Fonda? But what is this new age? Thorsten Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is still an apt description of the overarching materialism that has spread exponentially in our time. Our economies have grown from the horse drawn chariot of supply and demand to the nuclear powered rockets of computer-generated algorithms. Profits of some hedge funds exceed the GNP of modest countries, while England is referred to as Iceland on the Thames and the entire country of Greece faces the equivalent of a massive foreclosure proceeding. An explosion of information has awakened whole continents of knowledge, yet newspapers are defunct and the democratization of truth via outlets like Wikipedia has crushed the notion of a moral center. Is this the paradigm shift that Thomas Kuhn was alluding to in The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsYeats’s oft-quoted lines ring true once again: “The best lack all conviction and the worst/ Are filled with passionate intensity.” 

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Dictatorship of the Pervertariat

Has sexuality become a political act, a matter of party affiliation like voting Democrat or Republican, Working Man’s Party or Green, and getting into trouble like Arlen Spector when you switch horses midstream? If you have a particular sexual inclination, are you obligated to vote for it and become an activist advocating it on the part of a whole group of practitioners? It’s a great thing that we live in a more liberated age in which medical advances have proven that masturbation doesn’t lead to insanity. Yet in order to disabuse others of their primitive beliefs, are you obligated to make your sexuality into a collective experience? Must you walk around with a button that reads, “I like to jerk off”? In the socio-political arena, we have seen exactly this type of behavior. Victimhood replaces the awareness of inner conflict that needs to be understood and worked through. Rather than being presented with a complex set of conditions, we are asked to make a choice. You are either for or against. We who have suffered shame at the hands of those who believed that jerking off leads to madness now ask you to show your support for our rights by jerking off too! Better yet, we urge you to choose the jerking off way of life over the repressive, anachronistic, even colonialist idea of having sex with a partner. Naturally, there are important issues that need to be voted on, like gay marriage and the recent decision to extend hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners. But in the course of liberating ourselves from certain strictures, there appears to be a new kind of morality in which practices that were once considered to be perversions are turned into causes. Consensual adults should naturally be allowed to do whatever they like to each other, unless its causes serious harm. (Although the average marriage might not survive such criteria.) But must we all be card-carrying members of the Eulenspiegal Society?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


“You’re supposed to be my wife and I’m supposed to be your husband, and there is a difference between these roles,” the husband Adolph (Tom Burke) says in the current Donmar Warehouse production of Creditors at BAM. Adolph then goes on to accuse his wife Tekla (Anna Chancellor) of treating him like a creditor who makes these very obligations feel like debts that are being called in. It’s a theme that is reiterated as through a kaleidoscope throughout the play. At one moment, Tekla is described as having such a fully formed sensibility that Adolph has never been able to put his imprint on her; in another, he has created her, exhausted himself bolstering her fragile, self-critical ego to the point where he has sacrificed his career as an artist in order to allow her to flourish as a novelist. There is one astonishingly sensual scene in the production (directed by Alan Rickman), which mines the wellsprings of Strindberg’s precocious irony. It occurs when Tekla, returning after an absence, acts out the wantonness that Adolph has irresolutely tried to create in his sculpture of her that sits at center stage. Logic is the scale on which Strindberg plays his dramatic music, a logic that might be looked at as ideational were it not so perfectly evocative of the workings of self-reflexive consciousness—not only thinking, but thinking about thinking. Beyond the war between sexes and the fragile nature of self definition that obviously attracted Ingmar Bergman to Strindberg (could we ever imagine Scenes From a Marriage without the great Strindberg discussions on male and female sexuality?), it is the mind turning against itself that is the great subject of Strindberg’s work, and the territory that the current production at BAM so beautifully underlines. This is one production you don’t want to miss.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stickups by the Stuck Up

It used to be thieves that robbed banks. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James. They pulled off some of the great heists of the l9th and 20th centuries. There was a science to safe cracking. Great holdups predicated on complex planning and timing were the stuff of movies like Thief and The Bank Job.  But in the 21st century, the nature of criminality has taken a new turn. Banks rob from themselves and from their own customers. Recent descriptions of what has gone on in the world of banking resemble the process that occurs when the body attacks itself at the onset of auto-immune disease. Former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, under questioning by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is hard put to explain actions that were the equivalent of an attack on the very institution he was supposed to be helping to guide (“Panel Criticizes Oversight of Citi by Two Execs,” NYT, 4/8/10).  HSBC and UBS are accused of allowing clients to avoid taxes by actively abetting the creation of off-shore accounts (“2 Charged in International Tax Evasion Scheme Said to Involve HSBC," NYT, 4/15/10). Lehman Brothers uses creative accounting to hide losses (“Lehman Channeled Risks Through ‘Alter Ego’ Firm,” NYT, 4/12/10), and Goldman Sachs is accused of betting against the very products that it was selling to its own customers (“S.E.C. Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal,” NYT, 4/17/10). There have always been financial scandals, and the precincts of so-called respectable finance have never been freed from their Long Term Capitals, their Enrons, their Ivan Boeskys, Marc Richs and Michael Milkens. But it does appear that in the last decade the tide has really turned. The stickups are being perpetrated by the stuck up. There are very few reports of masked men entering banks today (even by neophytes of the kind Al Pacino played in Dog Day Afternoon), and if you look at the doors on today’s bank vaults, it is obvious that nothing short of a tactical nuclear device would be able to dislodge them from their hinges. The real threat seems to lie not with the so-called robbers, but with the guys in wingtips and rep ties sitting confidently behind their desks and holding the combination. Aren’t these the same Masters of the Universe Tom Wolfe wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities? Are you going to trust them with your money?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Diasporic Dining XIII: JP McChase

JP Morgan Chase has surpassed McDonalds as the most ubiquitous occupant of retail locations in the New York Metropolitan area, and rumor has it that the banking monolith and the food giant are considering merger talks along the lines of Kinkos and Fedex. Thus, it would be possible to order a Big Mac Super Saver Special, with jumbo fries and soda, and make an equally gargantuan (or miniscule, depending on your finances) deposit when you’re finished with your meal. Previously, McDonald’s offered the opportunity for its customers to make deposits, but those came in the form of fatty deposits to your large intestine rather than cash deposits to your checking account.  Now, those who wish to purchase financial instruments in the new JP McChase will also be able to get something for their money. For instance, let’s say I purchase a collateralized debt obligation from JP Morgan Chase—a bundle of risky mortgages wrapped into a useless bond, on which the bank will undoubtedly profit by writing credit defaults swaps. I can still be assured that my purchase will be backed up by the promise of an almost unlimited amount of comestibles, which might be tastier than they are fungible. Chicken McNuggets might not translate into gold bullion, but the newly impoverished customer at JP McChase is not likely to go away hungry.

Architects of the merger have accounted for every contingency of gluttony and greed by modeling the eating/banking experience on drive-through transactions.  Each JP McChase will be equipped with a hotline that connects to a live responder. The responder will operate a powerful X-ray that will enable him to see if a customer’s fatty transaction is complete, and if his or her deposit, cash or carb, has gone through.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lives of Our Leaders: It's Good to Be King ... Not So Great to Be Pope

(The Screaming Pope continues his series on problems of leadership by highlighting the plight of a colleague.)

Pope Benedict, aka the former Cardinal Ratzinger (NYT, April l0th, “Pope Put Off Punishing Abusive Priest”), has been getting some bad press for his handling of the church’s response to pedophile priests. Lucrezia Borgia’s father, who became Alexander VI, also got himself involved in imbroglios of a Machiavellian nature, but the problems faced by the papacy in Renaissance times were obviously far different from what Pope Benedict faces today, where the case involves a priest who tied up children. The current spate of accusations make it clear that it is good to be king, especially in a place like England, where you are basically a figurehead who makes lots of money and does little, while it is not so good to be pope, where there are numerous homunculi, or in this case succubi, that need to be patrolled. In the good old days a pope was a pope. Yes, he was mayor of the Vatican City. Yes, he had to conduct all those masses and dress up in papal garb (one thing that is never discussed by historians of the papacy is dry cleaning, i.e., who cleans the pope’s robes, especially if he lays one of those embarrassing farts that leave a stain). During the Second World War, you had Pius XII, who remained mostly silent in the face of the Holocaust. There were those who might have disagreed with the Pope’s behavior (like the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who wrote The Deputy), but the pope was a spiritual leader whose love for his flock removed him from the obligations usually accorded to statesmen. For today’s popes, life isn’t so simple. Everything has become politicized, and the pope is called upon to be not only the leader of the Catholic Church, but also an example to others in leadership positions. Caveat Emptor: before the next Cardinal becomes Pope, he should be aware of what’s up for grabs, and also make sure he has a good liability policy.  

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Synod of Time Travel

Here is the basic problem for the time traveler: If he journeys backwards, he shouldn’t leave a crumb. If his wormhole takes him into the future, he’s got to keep his yap shut. Traveling to the future can lead to big problems with the SEC, as it allows for the ultimate form of insider trading. If you know that Citibank is going to post a profit when its quarterly report is released, then you’ll buy a pile of stocks ahead of time. If you know who is going to win a Trifecta or a Super Bowl, then you’re going to clean out the bank. Making jaunts to the past poses a set of problems all its own, as there is a whole class of time travelers who are absorbed in trying to correct their mistakes—literally. Apparently, not acing high school history class was so traumatic for some of these voyagers to the world of yesteryear that they return hoping to retake the test, and find that they’re able to get off the wait list to Harvard. Then there are the smokers and drinkers and philanderers, who all want a second chance—few of them realizing that their selfish desire to get another turn at the plate can lead to genomic ARMAGGEDDON! Say no more, as Monty Python put it. But the bottom line is this: Time travelers need to hire consultants before they go “Back to the Future.” With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, time travel may soon be just a matter of flipping a switch. By the year 2500, time travel will undoubtedly be a no brainer. But there are moral and ethical concerns, and these will be addressed at the First Synod of Time Travel, scheduled for Bloomsday, June 16, at

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Namesake

Anyone with a name like Vercingetorix is born to be a conquerer. It’s like Douglas MacArthur or Erwin Rommel, aka the Desert Fox. Beowulf is a name that connotes the war-like spirit, as does General McChrystal, whose name evokes something tangible yet precious. Ataturk is another name that produces a martial effect, as does Bismarck, though Clausewitz, who argued that war is a form of diplomacy, is a name that sounds incongruously effete for someone who advocated Genghis Khan-like pillage. On the other hand, Alexander Haig, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, doesn’t sound like the name of a general, even though he was one. Alexander Haig is more like the name of an expensive Madison Avenue optometrist. On the other hand, Nixon’s secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, may not have been a general, but he sure looked like one. Laird scared you, just like Sterling Hayden’s Jack D. Ripper did in Dr. Strangelove. The My Lai Massacre needed Calley, just as the Iran-Contra affair needed Oliver North, but those names are lacking the teeth of the hyena, Esau’s furry arms, or the mane of the Lion King. Circumstances made those military men, but they were not warriors like General Patton or David Petraeus, whose calm is mirrored by his title—Head of the U.S. Military’s Central Command. You can almost imagine his stationary, which has got to be an eye-stopper. Colin Powell seems to be cut from similar cloth. If he’d been a surgeon, his procedures would have been done laparoscopically, unlike the marauding Taras Bulba. And even when Ulysses Grant was a little boy, it was obvious there was always going to be a tomb named after him. Sherman and Lee opposed each other, but they both had tanks named in their honor, such was their parity. Their names come to a natural standoff, like the Monitor and the Miramax. Hannibal rhymes with cannibal (say no more), and Dwight D. Eisenhower was nicknamed “Ike,” which rhymes with pike, a reassuringly quaint implement of war. He married Mamie, but turned out be be as much of a swordsman off the battlefield as he was when he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Diasporic Dining XII: A Dollar Saved is a Dollar Earned

Photos by Hallie Cohen

It’s Easter weekend. The cashier at the Dollar Tree is a veteran of both Price Chopper, where she was recently hit by an old woman with a cane, and Walmart, where there were long lines. By comparison, the Dollar Tree Where Everything is $1 is on a far more homey, human scale. In the window are signs advertising frozen and dairy foods for $1 and the “Wow Item of the Week,” some unhappy looking Easter bunnies. Dollar Tree is a backwater compared to discount juggernauts like BJ’s and Sam’s. No membership is required at Dollar Tree, and there is a whole wall dedicated to festively wrapped balloon weights. The Dollar Tree book shelf is composed of the equivalent of minor league hitters who have struck out. For instance, there is a book called The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace With Your Inner Achiever, which doesn’t seem to apply to anyone who walks into the store. The real achievers, those who buy paper towels in bulk, are too ambitious for Dollar Tree. They are to be found waiting patiently on line with their wagon trains of groceries at the big discount clubs. At Dollar Tree, there are mutations like the four-divider pocket notebooks that didn’t make the cut at Mead. At the other side of the store are the rudimentary Easter items. No one who walks out of the Dollar Tree need go hungry or be deprived of a chocolate Easter egg or crucifix. The big epistemological question at Dollar Tree remains: is everything really only a dollar? 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Diasporic Dining XI: A Wrinkle in Time

Photos by Hallie Cohen

Travel writers like Paul Theroux institutionalize their desire to change their surroundings by making it their calling, the subject of their work. The kind of enchantment that comes from the appreciation of new and changeable environments is a form of promiscuity, which obviously does not offer the creature comforts afforded by the familiar. But wandering can involve not only place, but also time. Isn’t that what daydreaming is? The mind simply takes a detour out of the present, only to be roused from its waking sleep by an often-unpleasant exigency of the everyday, like an insistent phone or the reveille of the alarm clock. Inhabitants of the five boroughs of Manhattan can also experience time travel when they leave the cosmopolitanism of Manhattan—which seems to follow Ezra Pound’s famous dictum about poetry, “make it new”—for outer boroughs that still contain the world of the past.  Manhattan once had a Third Avenue elevated train that ran through the Yorkville area. Yorkville was also the home to numerous Czech, Hungarian, and German restaurants, which no longer exist. Yorkville is no longer comprised of an immigrant population, which both patronized and produced such establishments. But lo and behold there is still an “El” in Queens, in the shadows of which lies a Czech restaurant named Koliba, which serves roast duck, dumplings, and red cabbage in a white wood interior that could easily be found in a magazine with a name like Sauna Life.  Decades ago there was a famous Manhattan establishment on 14th Street named Luchow’s, which served similar fare. Koliba is an oasis for the time traveler. Rest assured, the chef has never heard of boneless duck breast, the slow food movement, or cuisine minceur.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Art of Endurance

When her brother was born, Marina Abramovic almost drowned him. Her mother slapped her. Another time, she caught her arm in an electric washing machine, one of the first in Belgrade.  Being an old-world personality, her grandmother didn’t think to pull the plug. After Abramovic’s mangled arm was removed, she again was slapped. “I was punished for whatever I did,” she says now.  She lived under a strict curfew until she was 29 years old, and one night when she came home from one of her  performances, in which she appeared naked in front of an audience, her mother, a partisan fighter during the second world war who was married to a Yugoslavian national hero, threw an ashtray at her head, saying, “I give you life and I am taking it from you.” 

In some artists’ work there is the equivalent of sublimation, in which cruel and painful experiences are turned into art. On one level, Abramovic’s work avoids that kind of transformation. She describes playing Russian roulette with a friend when she was young. There was one bullet in the gun; they kept taking turns and nothing happened. Finally, the bullet went off, hitting a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Should this anecdote be taken symbolically as well as literally? Abramovic’s art is nothing short of a re-enactment of her painful past. In one early performance piece, she allowed her mostly beneficent audience to do anything they wanted to her. She has cut herself with knives. She has produced convulsive muscle contractions by administering anti-psychotic medications to herself, and followed that with medication normally administered to schizophrenics. She has done pieces in which the whole work consisted of being slapped. In another, she and her performance partner and former lover Ulay were tied to each other by the braids in their hair. Before she ever became a performance artist, she once intentionally tried to break her nose so she could get a nose job. Is this the beginning of her ars poetica?  Abramovic’s work is the art of endurance. She and Ulay each walked l000 miles along the Great Wall of China to say good-bye to each other after they’d decided to split up. The finale of the current MOMA exhibition is a work called The Artist is Present, in which Abramovic sits all day without moving as varying spectators line up to face her in a chair, while she looks on impassively. In this work the audience—like those journalists embedded for short periods of time with soldiers in hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan—tastes what it’s like to be part of an Abramovic piece.