Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From Russia with Love

Classic rock and oldies stations still proliferate, and so, apparently, do cold war spies. Just when a new generation of John Le Carrés was getting set to produce novels about the revaluation of the Renminbi, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps with the lethal capacity to destroy countries like Iceland and Ireland, the FBI discovers a good old fashioned spy ring, replete with everything from suburban couples to a vampish real estate agent who used Facebook as a cover for espionage. “Much of the ring’s activity…took place in and around New York,” the Times reported (“In Ordinary Lives, U.S. Sees the Work of Russian Agents,” NYT, 6/29/10). “The alleged agents were spotted in a bookstore in Lower Manhattan, a bench near the entrance to Central Park and a restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens.” The question naturally arises: under what conditions does an agent go so deeply under cover that he or she is no longer a spy? If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck—surely this is one of the first laws of espionage learned at War College. Apparently, these spies were so much a part of the American fabric that neighbors were shocked to find out that the Murphys of Montclair, N.J. were Russkies, or that 28-year-old Anna Chapman, or Anya as she called herself on Facebook, was a latter-day Colonel Rosa Klebb, the murderous agent played by Lotte Lenya in From Russia with Love whose secret weapon is a venom-tipped blade in the toe of her orthopedic shoe. Furthermore, what were these agents doing that was so different from what ordinary citizens like you or I do? “The alleged agents were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics…” explained the Times. Aren’t these the same things most patriotic Americans want to know about?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comp 101

In high school composition classes, and later in freshman college English courses, students learn to write themes. This is the derivation of the word “theme-book.” The idea is to present a cohesive essay in which a lead paragraph or sentence sets out a proposition. It’s much like proving a theorem in geometry, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the notion of tautology in linguistics, where statements like “the red chair is red” are examples of a priori analytic knowledge—in lay terms, self-evident iterations that don’t advance our knowledge of reality. The idea of the freshman comp essay is a little more sophisticated. A rather obvious proposition that doesn’t need proving is made, such as “All men are dogs.” Supporting evidence is provided, such as “Jack is a man,” with a concluding paragraph, which in some distended way dramatizes that, yes, Jack is a dog who wants to fuck every Jill in sight. Students are thereby graduated with honors in impoverished ways of thinking and then go on to contaminate the discourse that occurs in the course of human life. This contamination of language and thinking is no mean feat. People who make inanely self-evident statements that they go on to embellish is the second leading cause of heart disease in the United States after trans fats. Not only does college encourage us to make nonsensical statements that demonstrate a complete absence of intuition and metaphysics (apologies are here rendered to A.J. Ayer, the famous philosopher and author of Language, Truth, and Logic, whose thinking has had such a deleterious effect on human thought), it encourages the life-defeating proposition that one idea should follow from the next. A new era of writing instruction must begin in which students are taught the value of the non sequitur, where unproven statements are enthusiastically encouraged, and where students are taught to stop embellishing a point ad nauseum (yes we got the idea, you don’t have to wrap it up with a bow!), and are instead shown the value of moving on to fresh ideas both in writing and in life.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Analog, Digital, Dialogic

Is there such a thing as a digital or analog personality? These days, digitized music is pretty much the norm, unless you’re a purist who favors the kind of unmediated sound that analog provides. There is something facile about the digital personality, whose every move can be categorized by a 0 or a 1, but the facile also comprises a certain element of simplicity. Digital personalities tend to be idiot savants who are capable of great mechanistic feats while at the same time being devoid of what Henry James referred to as “felt life.” Borges once said something to the effect that life is too impoverished not to be immortal, but what does this pithy aphorism really mean? Is the blind Argentinian librarian really a Tiresias, or is the enigmatic meaning, which gives pause, only subterfuge? Analog personalities don’t work as fast, but aren’t they a bit like Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog, slowly but surely unfolding the truth? Many of us have given up film photography for the digital camera. But what has been lost is the sense of process, the steps leading to a conclusion. Too many images are created to occupy any of the old leather-bound albums, with their magical little adhesive corners that kept grandmother’s photos in place. Bridging the gap between the analog and digital worlds is perhaps best encapsulated in the concept of the dialogic, as proposed by the Russian philosopher, Bahktin in his work, The Dialogic ImaginationHere, all literature and utterance is seen to exist in a context (heteroglossia) that creates a continual conversation between the present and the past. Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence is a neurotic expression of a similar idea.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An American in Paris

George Gershwin’s An American in Paris haunts the recent scandal about General Stanley McChrystal’s on-the-record remarks about the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. The biting criticism leveled at the American operation, in particular the derisive remarks made about Vice President Biden, is linked to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which stranded McChrystal and his staff in Paris, where the initial interviews with Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings took place. Did McChrystal succumb to the selfsame rapture that inspired Gershwin’s iconic tune? Paris can have this kind of effect on even the most hardened military leaders, and it’s no surprise that McChrystal opened his heart in the City of Light. The whole episode, with Europe brought to a standstill by volcanic ash, has the quality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Paris functioning as the Forest of Arden, where Puck (now a left-wing journalist) turns Bottom (our erstwhile General) into a donkey. The fallout in Washington is the reality to which the pageant is finally reduced. Hemingway famously drank champagne at the Ritz as the Allies liberated Paris, so our hapless General was on hallowed ground as far as the romance between America and France is concerned. Let’s face it: however compelling Marja and Kandahar may be as theaters of war, they can’t hold a candle to the specter of General Courtney Hodges leading the First Army down the Champs Elysées in ‘45. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Hellfire Club

Has a very dismissive person, who has never given you the right time of day, died or suffered the loss of their faculties? It’s rather disconcerting, since it throws the whole project of trying to prove oneself to a naysayer into question. Who cares what X, Y or Z thinks if tomorrow they suffer an aneurysm that puts them on life support? Potentially, anyone you want to impress—whether it’s someone of the opposite sex who spurned your advances or someone who looked askance upon your talents, like a high-powered literary agent, editor or casting director—is going to perish, and actually won’t be taking their dismissive attitude with them to the grave. No, you will carry that venom until you pass it on to the next person at the party. There are people we all hate enough to want dead. At the very least, we want those who are unimpressed by our existence to suffer the same torment we have suffered as they descend into Malebolge, the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, reserved for the sins of omission. In No Exit, Sartre wrote, “l’enfer, c’est les autres.” Hell is other people. This should be qualified. Hell is a place where those who have sinned against us will be the victims of those same crimes. The murderer will be murdered, the rapist raped, and the person who fails to see the inherent genius in any one who has the bravado to claim such talents will suffer an eternal diminution of their talents and abilities. Those who tested and tracked ADHD students with standardized tests and termed them to be lacking in intelligence will experience the equivalent of a perpetual Ground Hog’s Day, in which they are perpetually mailed notifications from Princeton Educational Testing Services informing them they have not lived up to their potential.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wireless Camp

During last Saturday evening’s broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor presented a skit called “Wireless Camp.” This latter-day Erewhon for luddites proposed an end to the Internet, Facebook, and all forms of electronic networking. During the course of a stay at the camp, which is essentially a rehab clinic, those in recovery learn to write and spell and read books again, and actually participate in conversations with real people instead of avatars on Second Life or cybernetic faces created in digital fantasy land. The only problem with the skit, whose humor was too true to be good, is the title. “Wireless” sounds a little too close to “Wi-Fi,” syllables tantamount to “Bar” for an alcoholic. But when will people really start to go to islands where the Internet is embargoed, and those who wish to can be freed from the obligation to be Linked In?  If alcoholics go to detox to dry out, will there be places where the frazzled Internet surfer retires to be freed from the prison of connectivity? If "Macbeth does murder sleep," then MySpace murders solitude, giving the illusion that there’s no point in being alone. Keillor should find a more apt name for his “Wireless Camp” and advertise it as an actual event on Facebook.  Ironically, he might be able to fill enough beds in his camp to let him drop the Ketchup Advisory Board as a sponsor of A Prairie Home Companion, a latter day Grand Ole Opry, which is nothing short of revelation.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Answered Prayers

Black holes swallow everything. Cross the event horizon and you’re dust or worse. What better metaphor for the BP oil spill, the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history? Here, all the ambition and avarice, all the masses of Enrons and junk bond dealers, the credit-default swapsters and collateralized default loansters, the Marc Richs, the Boeskys, the Long Term Capitalsters and Michael Milkensters, have finally been trumped. Here, nature rebels and turns the desire for riches into a plague that drowns birds or sends them into death spirals, that poisons fish, that destroys beaches, that turns the sea into a toxic swamp. The carnage is worsened by the smell of rotting flesh. The oil spill is the crossroads of ambition and lax standards (like the ones that were supposed to encourage the growth of the economy during Alan Greenspan’s tenure at the Federal Reserve). Nature unhinged is the poison. This is not some synthetic product of man’s imagination, but the bowels of the earth disgorging the very lifeblood of the modern economy. What would the Mideast be without oil? We needed more oil to free ourselves from the stranglehold of the sheiks, and God answered our prayers. St. Teresa of Avila’s famous dictum, “Answered prayers cause more tears than those that go unanswered,” perfectly illustrates the conundrum of the West, strangling on its own nourishment. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Novels like Carl Hiassen’s Strip Tease (later made into a movie with Demi Moore) glorify the world of strip clubs and the life of strippers, who alternately play the role of gangster molls and informants. Indeed, when you think about it, strippers constitute one of the world’s only uncovered undercover clandestine intelligence services. In fact, many inebriated clients tell strippers more than they would ever want to know, and it’s actually surprising that the 9/11 terrorists, who reputedly attended some lap-dancing establishments in Florida while taking flying lessons, didn’t spill their beans in more ways than one. But few people realize that underneath the glamorous exterior, stripping is a job like any other—as, for that matter, is being a film star, the head of Microsoft, or President Obama. Strippers have to make sure that they stay fit through exercise and a healthy nutritional regimen. They must be well versed in the subtleties of group dynamics, in that their job is to make all their customers feel special while eschewing the kind of favoritism that might send someone away with hurt feelings. Every customer who becomes a regular and seeks out the attentions of a particular girl has to come away feeling like a legend in his own mind. The stripper confronts a problem faced by many therapists, whose patients all want to feel like they are the most interesting, special, gifted, emotionally complex and developmentally hopeful—or monumentally hopeless in the case of narcissistically grandiose depressives—client on the roster. Male strippers, who entertain at clubs like Chippendales or in gay clubs, face similar problems to those of their female counterparts, and they’re all united in the fact that they must carefully count the dollars that are stuffed into their crotches so that they can report their income to the IRS.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Present Laughter

In Laughter; An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson finds the roots of the comic impulse in inelasticity, proposing that comedy germinates in rigid responses to crisis that avoid the nature of the reality. Thus, the innocent, Chaplinesque figure, the neophyte, the idiot savant, the rube, the Babbitt, the W.C. Fields blusterer are all frequently both objects and detonators of comedy. Jack D. Ripper’s unchanging use of the terms “precious bodily fluids” and “Russkies” in Dr. Strangelove fuels the syntactic parody of this seminal piece of latter twentieth century comedy. If one were to take a portrait of social satire in the fecund era of the ‘60s and ‘70s the way one takes a group shot a high school football squad, Strangelove would be the coach with his arms around MASH on the film side, with Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five representing the books. But where is the humor today? There are no Russkies. The real threat lies in kidnapped children in the Congo getting conscripted by self-appointed generalissimos who don the regalia of fallen empire. Where is the comedy in volcanic ash shutting down air travel, in a latter day version of the Icarus myth, in which the Polish president flies too low rather than too high in his over-eagerness to accept penance from an ancient enemy, in a man-made disaster (the BP oil spill) that outdoes anything nature could choreograph?  The job of the comedian is harder today because we have entered a post-absurdist age in which a creature named Survival rears its ugly head amidst the intellectual incongruities and pretensions of the age. Restoration playwrights like Wycherley, who named their characters for their foibles, would have had a party with the crazies captaining this Ship of Fools that we now call spaceship Earth—Mr.  Clueless and Miss  Loveless await their cues.  But laughter is short lived when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun, or in this case a car bomb sitting in Times Square.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes is an allegory masquerading as a mystery. There are two key plot points in the film: an unsolved murder and an unresolved relationship. The understanding of the murder is initially what motivates a retired investigator, Benjamin, to write a novel about his past. But it soon becomes apparent that the movie is really about both memory and history. “There are memories and memories of memories,” Benjamin declares at one point. The murder takes place in 1974 during the ascension of Argentinian President Isabel Perón, and the release of the convicted killer is the result of the corruption of her regime, which uses criminals as enforcers. The image of the brutal murder, which is replayed as a flashback throughout the movie, is plainly emblematic of Argentina’s violent past, and the unconsummated relationship between humbly-born Benjamin and the aristocratic Cornell-educated judge, Irene, is in turn representative of class struggle. They are literally and symbolically uneasy bedfellows. Perónism exhibited elements of fascist populism and evolved as such movements do from tensions between numerous groups, including the landed aristocracy that Irene represents—at one point in the movie she actually describes her brothers as feudal lords who can protect Benjamin from the retribution of the killer and his Perónist colleagues. One of the most interesting elements in The Secret in Their Eyes is Benjamin’s ambivalence about Irene. It is he who has rejected her in the past, and in the end when he is finally ready, she is plainly triumphant in being able to tell him to close the door of her office behind him. Stasis is an overarching theme of the film. The murdered woman’s husband is fixated on her picture in just the way that Benjamin is fixated on Irene’s eyes. Benjamin’s ability to finally move and act dramatically augurs the end of a dying social order.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brief Encounter

Joyce termed sentimentality “unearned emotion.” The same could be said for melodrama. The film Brief Encounter, based on Noël Coward's play Still Life, is a classic piece of melodrama, pulled along by the engine of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number #2.  Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon has all the ingredients of melodrama. The music, in this case more subtly rendered by the British composer Edward Elgar, underscores the impossible love relationship between a shiftless, cultivated school teacher and a Lawrentian construction worker, Jean, trapped in the provinces, with a muted pre-verbal physicality. If there is a Madame Bovary in the film, it is in Jean’s muted aspiration for the world that Veronique Chambon represents. Yet there are so many lovely touches in Mademoiselle Chambon, underscored by the leitmotif of the window which runs through the film—the romance begins with Jean repairing Chambon’s window and ends with the vision of Jean and his wife Ann-Marie, now pregnant with a second child, viewed through a claustrophobic window shot. If there is any melodrama here, it is overshadowed by subtlety and artistry. In this regard, the movie is reminiscent of the understatement of Evan Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels. The affair is only one of a series of life passages Jean confronts, including a visit to a mortician with his father to decide on interment or cremation. Jean leaves a message on Veronique’s answering machine culminating in the simple phrase, “C’etait Jean,” and Veronique’s students write “Au revoir Mademoiselle Chambon” on a blackboard. In another exchange, Ann Marie says, “I think your father enjoyed his birthday,” to which Jean replies, “Yes, it was a good party.” In a previous epiphanic scene, Ann Marie, having seen the way her husband looks at his son’s teacher, understands everything. What is truly moving about Mademoiselle Chambon are the succession of moments that contain what Henry James termed “felt life.” In the end, Madame Chambon earns its emotion. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nuclear Armageddon

Have you ever envisioned the equivalent of a Three Mile Island or a Chernobyl in therapeutic terms? Let’s imagine that the interior core of a psychotherapist is like a great nuclear reactor filled with highly combustible materials deposited there by patients. Imagine the Catholic confessional as a bomb filled with conventional explosives. The difference between confession and psychoanalysis (the most intensive form of psychotherapy) is the difference between the kind of explosive device used by the allies in the bombing of Dresden or Tokyo and the kind of nuclear weapon tested at Bikini Atoll, a hydrogen bomb that creates a fusion explosion from heavy water. Now, let’s say that one of these fusion-level devices falls into the hands of someone like Kim Jong-il, the hermaphroditic despot of North Korea, which recently triggered another international crisis by sinking a South Korean vessel. That’s what it would be like if a psychoanalyst went off his rocker, symbolically starting a chain reaction that culminated with him spilling the beans. The fission and fusion reactions in atomic and hydrogen bombs, respectively, are ignited by detonators that are essentially conventional explosives. Similarly, the unleashing of the kind of incendiary material that lurks within the typical psychoanalyst would have to be facilitated by some sort of event that acted as a detonator. We are reminded of the television newscaster played by Peter Finch in Network, who urges his audience to go to their windows and scream out, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Which therapeutic session, which bout of navel-gazing by the narcissistic patient, is going to finally throw the long-suffering analyst over the edge? What combination of private school and college rejections, of spousal abuse and infidelity, of financial instability, of thwarted ambitions and unfulfilled loves, of roads more or less traveled, will become the equivalent of putting what is supposed to be a deterrent into the hands of a rogue state? Let’s say Iran acquires enough nuclear fuel to create a bomb, or Osama bin Laden hatches an ingenious plot with the North Koreans, or let’s say the Opus Dei takes over the Vatican à la Dan Brown, or Orthodox Jews who don’t even believe Israel should exist decide to take the Middle East situation into their own hands, or let’s say gentle old Denmark or Sweden suddenly has a collective nervous breakdown and raids the papers of Nils Bohr the way children playing with matches start forest fires. Imagine what will happen when the cultivated person sitting behind you, asking gently if you have fallen asleep when you are supposed to be free-associating, suddenly says to himself, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Unified Theory

Picasso had a blue period between 1901-4 and a Rose period, from l904-6, during which he met his first wife Olivier in the Bateau Lavoire in Montmartre and painted Gertrude Stein. 1906-16 was his cubist period, when he painted Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. The 347 Suite is the last element in the current Picasso show at the Met. These prints, including sugar-lift aquatints, were done in Mougins. Aldo and Piero Crommelynck, who Picasso met during the ‘40s in the atelier of Roger Lacourière, had established a studio near Picasso’s villa Notre-Dame de Vie in l968. It is really useless to talk about Picasso after John Richardson and numerous other scholars have exhumed both his life and work, but may we make at least two statements? He absorbed the history of art almost magically and had a hand that can only be characterized as sleight. He loved to paint and draw naked women, and he was willing to sacrifice them for his art. Further, anyone who has ever gone to a whorehouse will recognize the girls in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (a painting not included in the current exhibit). There is an almost documentary quality to the abstraction. If there is anything that the Met show illustrates, it is the fact that Picasso had one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th. He fell into the tradition of the great naturalists who triumphed in the art of mimesis, to the extent that his blue, rose and cubist periods were great documents of their times, while revolutionizing the media of painting, drawing and lithography in which he worked. Like Einstein, he was attempting to create a unified theory between micro and macrocosm, between the small and large worlds, between the basics of matter and the universe. The only difference is that Picasso succeeded.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Double

John Grimonprez’s film Double Take is based on a Jorge Luis Borges story, August 25, l983, which in turn is based on Dostoevsky’s The Double. In the Borges story, the narrator, who is 61, dreams himself into a future date when he, or his double, is 84 and on his deathbed. Alfred Hitchcock’s double, Ron Burrage, a waiter who worked at Claridge’s, plays a major role in the film. Double Take is deceptive since it’s not really about Hitchcock, but about the way he walked into the outline of his own image in the famed ‘50s series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The infamous Nixon-Krushchev debate at the American exposition in Moscow, the Bay of Pigs, and the image of a body falling from the World Trade Center, captured like a New Image painting, are also elements in this piece of meta cinema, along with cuts from The Birds, Folgers coffee commercials, which provided the commercial spots for  the Hitchcock TV series, and excerpts from the cold war thriller Topaz. Time and history drive the diegesis. There is l960, the year Borges’s short story takes place, 1963, the year The Birds was released and Kennedy was shot, and l980, the year Hitchcock died. The notion of the alter ego, which survives Hitchcock survives  in the form of the voice of Burrage and Mark Perry, who imitates his voice, is almost as haunting as Tippi Hedren’s recollection of being bitten by the birds that Hitchcock used for his film shoot. “If you meet your double, you should kill him,” Hitchcock is quoted as saying. Double Take is pure Borges. It will never be mistaken for Hitchcock. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Thousand Years of America?

Are the Floyd Landis allegations about doping and steroid use by cycling legend Lance Armstrong and others just the tip of the iceberg? (“After Doping Allegations, a Race for Details,” NYT, 5/21/10.) Just about everywhere we turn, new evidence of chicanery is discovered in the aerie of aspiration that used to be known as Imperial America. In a pattern that has been reported on repeatedly, Goldman Sachs, the hard-driving, seemingly invulnerable investment bank, seems to have bet against its own clients. The latest in the rash of revelations about such behavior concerns the beleaguered Washington Mutual Bank, a client that Goldman apparently represented and bet against at the same time. The Times recently reported on 14 principles that Goldman teaches its employees, beginning with Principle One—“Our clients’ interests always come first”—and ending with Principle 14—“Integrity and honesty at are at the heart of our business.” “But some former insiders,” the Times reported, “…say Goldman has a 15th, unwritten principle that employees openly discuss. It urges Goldman workers to embrace conflicts and argues that they are evidence of a healthy tension between the firm and its customers.” (“Clients Worried about Goldman’s Dueling Goals,” NYT, 5/19/10.) 

What constitutes success, and to what lengths does one go to achieve it? Do the ends justify the means? Extraordinary rendition and torture techniques like water-boarding may get a terrorist to talk, but, the Guantanamo fiasco and the continued failure of our intelligence services to correlate basic information relating to no-fly lists notwithstanding, these techniques are bought at the price of constitutional protections and principles. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent and surprising comments on the withholding of Miranda rights for terrorism suspects are a recent case in point (“Eric Holder: Miranda Rights Should Be Modified for Terrorism Suspects,” The Huffington Post, 5/9/10). In our striving for greatness, are we not losing sight of the very things that once made us great?  

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Joe Egg Sunny Side Over

Infanticide is a horrible thing, but the toxic mixture of an imperviously garrulous parent and a screaming child on a crowded plane is a bona-fide WMD. Generally, airlines try to stick these creatures towards the back of the fuselage, in what is known to many travelers as Zone #3, but is more aptly designated the Terror Zone. If for any reason a traveler suspects he may be lodged in the Terror Zone, it is imperative that he rush off to one of those concourse bookstores to purchase a copy of Swift’s A Modest Proposal. You remember the famous essay arguing that one solution to the hunger problem in Ireland would be to eat the babies. In the case of the Terror Zone, which some might argue calls for an even more modest proposal, solutions range from pepper spray to an impromptu staging of the bloody climax of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (no M.F.A. required). But please, spare the irony. The modern plane only flies when it has been stuffed like a fois gras-producing goose, with unsuspecting passengers in the role of the goose’s innards. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. Thoughts of muzzling, encouraging acrobatic activities for which the autonomic nervous system is not prepared, sending the urchin into an Olympic-style half gainer from 34,000 feet, start to percolate. It is terrible to think thoughts like this, thoughts that only run through the minds of mass murderers. You grow to hate the colicky thing for forcing you to become something other than the exemplary citizen that you had planned to be prior to buying that ticket for Des Moines. But would it really be so disconcerting to hear the following announcement? “We wish to call your attention to the emergency doors. Due to an excess of noise on this flight, we will be jettisoning our cargo of infants through those doors. Please unfasten your infant’s seatbelt and prepare to pass him in the direction of the illuminated exit signs.” It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Peter Nichols was traveling on a crowded plane when he first got the idea for his classic play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Buried Alive

It turns out that Nagg and Nell, the elderly couple buried up to their necks in ash cans in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, were not inventions at all. As it happens, they are alive (barely) and unwell in Chicago, as the Times recently reported in its National Briefing section (“Couple Found Buried in Debris at Home,” NYT, 5/25/10). However surreal-sounding, the pair’s condition does not seem all that improbable if you’ve ever known people who’ve occupied the same residence for many years and suffer from the inability to throw things away. The DSM, the famed diagnostic manual of the psychiatric profession, provides terms that describe all types of abnormalities. For instance, people who can’t write suffer from dysgraphia; for people who can’t identify objects, it’s agnosia; and for those who can’t enjoy themselves, the diagnosis is anhedonia, etc. Although there is no rubric in the psychiatric manuals under which the inability to jettison junk seems to fall, the case of the South Side couple mired in “piles of food waste and trash” may throw some light on the genesis of Beckett’s imaginative concept. Like Godot, Endgame (Fin de partie in the original French) has been the subject of much interpretation by scholars—beginning, of course, with the chess reference of the title. But few scholars have underlined the realistic roots of the play, roots that situate this work closer to the naturalism of writers like Zola than the absurdist, existential comedies of the dramatists with whom Beckett is often associated. The recent discovery of these true-fiction Beckettian characters illustrates that Endgame is best understood as a jeremiad about what happens when elderly couples fail to throw things away.