Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Silence

There is a beauty but also violence to silence. Is this the unrest that produced Emily Dickinson’s turbulent poetry? Do people listen to music in order to calm the violence that emerges from solitude? There are stages of silence, just like there is a process of dying that culminates in the death rattle. Georgia O’Keeffe knew about silence, and John Cage wrote a famous piece of music, 4’33”, which can never be truly performed (though it’s been presented), employing silence as its music. Silence is a commodity that is increasingly hard to come by; not because the world is a noisier place, but because of the density of information that surrounds us. Offices, for example, are quieter since computers replaced typewriters and phones were replaced by instant and text messaging. True silence proposes a certain vacancy, an emptying out. Is that what meditation seeks to do? Our silence is threatened because our solitude is fractured. Whether we have anything to do with actual people or not, we live with the illusion of community. Arrivistes used to be part of a social landscape described by words like nouveau riche. But today, the new aspiration is informational, and while we might loathe our crowded screens, we lie in perpetual terror of being left behind.  True silence used to be a bare motel room in a plains state with a Gideon Bible in the drawer of the nightstand. But today such a condition can only be found in “the hole,” the solitary confinement section of a maximum-security prison. And what is silence when it is not chosen? Self imposed confinement, of the kind practiced by monks, leads to silence, which can in turn lead to transcendence of the petty desires that constitute our suffering. Yet, isolation can also produce insanity. We become haunted by voices when we can no longer tolerate being alone. The terror of Bergman’s Silence derives from the absence of god.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Lonely Crowd II

Erica Jong coined the term “zipless fuck,” but the desire for instant intimacy obviously has a storied history, from Catullus to The Canterbury Tales, from Rabelais to Sexus, Nexus, and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, to Nicholson Baker’ s brilliantly erotic Fermata.  However, the sexual passages from these works can be so stimulating that we forget the more profound desire to connect that lies at the heart of even the most perverse scenarios. It might be worth our while to interject E.M. Forster’s famous words from Howards End“only connect”—into the discussion, though that work is hardly noted for its sexual content. Inevitably, even the most promiscuous fantasy about a hot sexual encounter with an anonymous partner has everything to do with connection. If the orgasm is, as the French have termed it, a little death, then the birth of consciousness, the child’s entry into the world and separation from the womb (and what Freud termed its “oceanic effect”) represents a displacement, an individuation that is purchased at the price of isolation. If ego can be defined as the literal and symbolic boundary of the material self, then that demarcation constitutes a prison. Furtive browsers of Internet porn sites might convince themselves that they are engaging in little acts of rebellion in which they only want to see gonads or sexual practices that would normally be hidden from sight, but ultimately the obsession with intimate acts emanates from a more profound search for intimacy. The wandering ego is an exile from the paradise of oneness with nature. Humans, and indeed all organic matter, even molecules, demonstrate a tendency to differentiation, together with a countervailing tendency to dissolution and finally unification with the whole. Isn’t that what the peasants are after in the famed orgy sequence in Bunuel’s Viridiana? The Lonely Crowd is the name of a classic work of sociology, but the title may have even more universal implications than its authors, concerned with the world of post-war strivers, ever intended.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Independent Travel for Husbands, Wives and Lovers

Not to make light of the case of the twice divorced Chinese computer scientist who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for group sex (“18 Orgies Later, China Swinger Gets Prison Bed,”—a title which alone could win the Times a Pulitzer Prize in punditry—5/20/10), but in many ways America doles out even harsher punishments, especially to neurotic New Yorkers. There are men who are sentenced to a life-time in prisons of their own making just for having the thoughts described in the Times article. Is there any significance to the fact that the Chinese computer scientist is named Mr. Ma, and that most of his misdeeds were performed in the Nanjing apartment he occupied with his elderly mother? Ma, according to the Times, went by the online handle Roaring Virile Fire and lived with a woman whose online avatar was Passionate Fiery Phoenix, and who had been traveling the land searching for those who shared her proclivities. “Marriage is like water,” the Times quoted Roaring Virile Fire as saying. “You have to drink it. Swinging is like wine. Some people feel it’s delicious the first time they try it, so they keep drinking. Some people try it and think it tastes bad, so they never drink it again.” It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Ma sounds and looks like Confucius. What would a Freudian analyst do in the face of such equanimity? According to the Times, Mr. Ma’s crime spree began in 2004 with a game of strip poker. He had an anxiety attack and couldn’t get it up, but he stuck to his guns and created a chat room called “Independent Travel for Husbands, Wives and Lovers.” Sounds like Ma was on top of his game until he got in trouble with the law.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Trading Places

“The Tradeworx computers get price quotes from the exchanges, decide how to trade, complete a risk analysis and generate a buy or sell order—in 20 microseconds,” reported the Times in a piece about the new phenomenon of high speed trading (“Speedy New Traders Make Waves Far From Wall St,” NYT, May 16, 2010). Whether you follow Warren Buffett’s notion of the equity based trade or the Soros model based on reflexivity, everything is a little faster these days. It’s like running on a waxed kitchen floor. At some point you’re going to slip and fall. That’s what happened to the market on May 6, when it fell l000 points in a matter of minutes. Of course, everything’s relative in a multiverse where CERN’s Large Hadron Collider recreates Higgs Bosons and other particles that sprang to life a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. The whole structure of the financial world has changed. Blue-blood families, who might have held stocks in companies like Union Carbide, Exxon or IBM for generations, now pride themselves on holding portfolios for over five seconds. Whether you study a company’s spread sheet and involve yourself in a firm’s business, like Buffett did when he purchased his preferred position in Goldman Sachs, or you deal with currency fluctuations and market forces as Soros has done, in the brave new world of finance your relationship with management will be considered long term if you hold a stock for over thirty seconds. But as seasoned high-speed traders learn in their relatively short half-lives, much can happen in a short period of time, a premise that comes to high finance from pornography, where the short loop in which the beginning, middle and end of a sex act are condensed into a single action long ago replaced the more leisurely story lines of Debbie Does Dallas, Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat. Yes, the old Newtonian trading, where investors purchased stock and actually received certificates that they put in their vaults, is a vestige of an age when people read books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Ulysses.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lives of Our Leaders: It's Hard to be the King II

It’s doubtful that there will be any more Abe Lincolns, Teddy or Franklin Roosevelts, or John F. Kennedys. It’s not that there aren’t honorable, even inspired men in politics. It’s just that the job description has changed. It’s one thing to triumph over Everest, but quite another to conquer the entire Himalayan range. Health care, financial reform, Iran, Iraq, Middle East crisis in general, borrowing crisis in Europe, North Korean hermaphroditic bad boy, Social Security on the fritz, oil glorious oil (spilling), tea party uprisings, terrorism at home and abroad, intractable Afghanistan, burial ground of ideological warriors, and now anti-missiles that don’t do the job (“Review Cites Flaws in U.S. Antimissile Program," NYT, 5/17/10). Things were looking up for Obama, but will he be humbled by the sheer magnitude of the challenge, as the results of the upcoming mid-term elections might suggest? What the world requires is a Dirty Harry, a Terminator, someone who will punish the bad guys and free the good. But our avenging angel can’t be too concerned with due process or all the things that make America great. To get things done, America needs a brash, territorial president like Lyndon Johnson, whose canine behavior was demonstrated when he boldly exhibited himself after urinating in the congressional bathrooms. Obama wants to be a man of action, but he is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, the thinking man, the troubled smoking prince who suffers a fitful sleep. Tyranny is the only working political system in these parlous times, and Obama lacks all the qualities of a good tyrant. Firstly, he stubbornly refuses to embrace a xenophobic view of the world. He refuses to create an enemy over which he can lord with self-congratulatory moral superiority. He is a believer in the politics of inclusion. He also refuses steadfastly to lay the blame on his predecessors. Finally, he seems to be faithful to his wife. One of the most important qualities of a great statesman is that he be principled when it comes to humanity as a whole, but a total hypocrite and cad in his relationships with women. This shows that the leader of civilized society has cojones, and will blow out the brains of anyone who tries to get in his way.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lives of Our Leaders: The Secret Life of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

“Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”—James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
“As it turned out, Mr. Blumenthal never served in Vietnam, but over time, his identification with veterans of war became so strong that some of those around him … just assumed he had.” (“Vietnam Claims Grew in Time, Colleague Says,” The New York Times, May 18, 2010)   
Richard Blumenthal led a secret life, but it was nothing like that of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who patronized the Emperor’s Club VIP escort service, arranging the infamous assignation with client #9 in room 871 of Washington DC’s Mayflower Hotel. Blumenthal, a Harvard Graduate, was far more imaginative. According to what he told the Times, he didn’t use any connections to achieve his valor, he simply picked up the phone book (remember those fat objects, now relics of the Vietnam era?), found the number of the Marine Corps Reserve, and got himself shipped off to Paris Island for training. The rest, as they say, is history. Though he never actually set foot in Vietnam, the verdant, dangerous Mekong Delta unfurled itself in Blumenthal’s imagination. Khe Sanh and Danang were only a few of his destinations. Following his fancy, he parachuted into increasingly treacherous territory and immediately found himself under fire. Though he was afraid, his first thought was of saving his platoon. He came out with his AK-47 blazing, dropped some grenades, and watched with a grin as Charlie retreated. He was a legend in his own mind, saving the lives of many good men, who would return the favor by electing him Senator after he described his long, imaginary journey at VFW posts across his great state. One thing we can say about Blumenthal: he’s a real Harvard man, unlike Adam Wheeler, who weaved a far more complex tale to get away with his particular lie (“Campuses Ensnared by ‘Life of Deception,’” NYT, 5/19/10).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Anus Mirabilis

Remember when you were a kid and had a thermometer shoved up your ass? Remember the jar of Vaseline? Remember the dread? There are those who spend their lives running away from such experiences, either by way of geography, escaping to far way lands where there are no thermometers (there is a whole critical school which argues that this was the traumatic situation that produced The King and I), or by joining Christian Science or Scientology or choosing an ayurvedic cure in which there is no need for thermometers. But why all this phobia about fever, which is the body’s natural way of fighting infection?

Police officers get arrested for doing to suspects what some parents did to their children in the heyday of the anal thermometer. Was the insult to the anus all that it was cracked up to be?  The anal thermometer is a vestige of neo-colonialism, of a hierarchical world in which family life reflected the hegemony of the West over so-called underdeveloped countries. Children were told to be seen and not heard, and that applied to their medical treatments too. That is, until the release of Wild in the Streets (l968), the classic Shelley Winters vehicle in which children take over the world. In today’s society, where even infants tend to be well informed and five-years-olds have thousands of Facebook friends, it’s harder for a parent or a priest to get away with some of the abuse we have read about recently in the press. Children are empowered, and parents who eschew the armpit or the mouth had better beware that their child might end up calling a hotline and eventually forming a support group, where they can spend the rest of their lives blaming anachronistic forms of temperature taking for turning them into drug or sex addicts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Moebius Strip

There is a certain type of person who is trapped in a perpetual withering glare. Sufferers from Moebius Syndrome lack the ability to show any expression, and their seeming lack of responsiveness is frequently misinterpreted as a lack of empathy. Kathleen Bogart, a one-time social worker who is now studying the syndrome from which she suffers, has described how her condition made it difficult for her to help clients (“Seeking Emotional Clues Without Facial Clues,” NYT, April 5, 2010). Ms. Bogart represents an extreme example, but there are many people whose seeming indifference to life is actually a selling point. When you come across a person who is expressionless and doesn’t seem to react to your presence, you immediately assume something is wrong with you, not them. How much more powerful is this than the people-pleaser, the unctuous soul, the Uriah Heep who fawns over you with false praise, the person who has a goal in sight and is trying too hard? The gregarious nurse in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is frantic to make some sort of contact with the psychotic actress who has withdrawn from the world, until the tables are turned and the actress desperately tries to pierce the nurse’s now stolid exterior. In the case of Moebius, a physical abnormality creates a chasm. In the case of Persona, it’s psychiatric. In everyday encounters that don’t approach these kinds of physical or mental extremes, there tends to be an amalgam in which a posture of indifference is an outgrowth of a so-called passive aggressive propensity. Conversely, social anxiety creates a chaotic exterior filled with involuntary muscular movements. Naturally the cool, silent type gets a certain degree of reinforcement for the malady, to the extent that he or she is likely to have the upper hand. James Dean was the epitome of the cool, silent type. The frantic character Jim Carrey has created in so many of his films is the diametric opposite. Carrey’s persona is the paradigm of the dejected figure who has little of what sociologists terms “social capital.” Stripping your character down to basics, into which category do you fall?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Stand Up and Be Counted!

How many times have you picked up a book or gone to a movie and read about or watched a character and said, “That is me,” or better yet gone to a museum and looked at a portrait or a sculpture, say Michelangelo’s David or Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus, and said, “Yup, that’s me”? Are you Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, are you Alyosha Karamazov, are you David Copperfield? Are you Sherman McCoy from Bonfire, are you Jamie from Bright Lights, Big City, are you Gatsby, or Dick Diver from Tender is the Night? Are you Yourcenar’s Hadrian, are you Bardamu from Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, or better yet are you Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood? OK, let’s get to the point, are you Jake Barnes or Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises, or a little of both? Are you Casaubon or Humbert Humbert, Ulrich from The Man Without Qualities, or Franz Biberkopf from Berlin Alexanderplatz? Are you Hans Castorp from Zauberberg or Leverkuhn from Doctor Faustus? Alas, are you Swann? Are you Vronsky or Levin from Anna Karenina? Come on, tell the truth. Are you Pierre or Andrei from War and Peace? Eventually you’re going to have to make a choice. Are you Molly, Leopold or Stephan from Ulysses, or Gabriel Conroy—yes everybody, man, woman or beast, has a little bit of Gabriel Conroy in them. Isn’t that Joyce’s achievement? Just like there is a little bit of Odysseus returning home unrecognized by all except his faithful Argos in all of us who have ever left and returned. Have you ever dreamt you were Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus, Antoine Doinel from The Four Hundred Blows, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman, or James Dean’s Cal in East of Eden (and even Health Ledger’s Joker if we’re being totally honest)? There’s a little bit of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in all of us (who hasn’t given some thought to holding a .357 magnum?), a touch of Meryl Streep’s Silkwood, and naturally we all want to stand up and be counted like Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront. Or maybe you just want to accept the benign indifference of the universe like Estragon, who inaugurates Waiting for Godot with his famed pronunciamento, “Nothing to be done.”