Thursday, September 30, 2010

Appointment in Samarra

Lindsay Lohan should be awarded the Darryl Strawberry Prize, which is given each year to celebrity relapsers. The real question is, why is Lohan getting so much attention? There are performers who have wasted more talent than she did. Certainly Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Agee, Richard Yates, Fred Exley, Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowksi were among the prose writers who squandered their God-given gifts, as did playwright Brendan Behan, John Belushi and Lenny Bruce in the world of comedy, Billie Holiday and Tommy Dorsey in the world of jazz, and Richard Burton in theater. And though Dylan Thomas didn’t die of alcoholism per se, among poets he drank death-defying amounts of booze. Sylvia Path didn’t drink herself to death; she simply stuck her head in an oven. But we all mourned her loss. The fact is that the bar has been lowered. It used to be that you had to have some talent to be a celebrity. Now, apparently, one of the chief qualifications is the ability to drink too much, take too many drugs and refuse to show up in court when arrested for some substance-abuse-related infraction like a DWI. You don’t even have to die. Paris Hilton is a curious case of celebrity with a minimum of talent but with a nuclear-level self-destruct impulse enabled by a pocket full of inherited shekels. Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956, in a drunk driving incident, was a great loss to American painting. There are many poor souls who have an Appointment in Samarra—to quote the title of a famous book about self-annihilation by John O’Hara, who didn’t necessarily squander his talent, despite being a lush—but their names rarely make it to the headlines of your favorite Internet news source or supermarket tabloid. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Number One Son

The Times reported that Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, was made a general in the army, along with his aunt, Kim Kyuong-hui, whose husband, Jang Seong-taek, is “…often regarded by outside analysts as the No.2 man in the North and a potential caretaker for the government should Kim Jong-il, 68, who is in failing health, suddenly become incapacitated.” (“Kim’s Son is Elevated Before Meeting,” NYT, 9/27/10.) The Times went on to explain that Kim Jong-nam, 39, the brother of Kim Jong-un, had been the heir apparent until he went AWOL to Disneyland in Tokyo with forged papers. What does this have to do with Temple Israel, for which the Internet lists locations in Croton-on-Hudson, New Rochelle, Minneapolis, Memphis, Boston, Hollywood, and Miami, among others? The answer is, not very much, except if one speculates about what might have happened to the Kims and the leadership of North Korea if there had been a branch of Temple Israel in Pyongyang. This is not to say that Jewish communities are exempt from conflict regarding succession. The Satmar Hasidim went through a well-publicized upheaval after the death of the Grand Rebbe Moishe Teitelbaum. Teitelbaum’s oldest son, Aaron, like Kim Jong-nam, had originally been slated to lead the sect, but instead his younger brother, Zalman, began to play a significant role. Was there any political hanky panky? Was this a Jacob/Esau type situation? With Moses Teitelbam long dead, no one will ever know, and the Satmars are unlikely to receive the scrutiny by intelligence services that’s accorded the Northern Korean Politburo. One thing is sure—it’s unlikely that either Aaron or Zalman Teitelbaum played any part in the torpedoing of a South Korean naval boat in March.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Head Trip

Inception is an old-fashioned head-trip. The Leonardo DiCaprio character is an extractor and implanter of ideas who is haunted by the suicide of his own wife. Parenthetically, one wonders if the story doesn’t owe something to another futuristic work—Tarkovsky’s Solaris (based on the Stanislav Lem novel), in which the central character is also haunted by the death of his wife. In the case of Inception, the wife’s presence is an unholy reminder of the idea of the unreality the De Caprio character had so successfully and tragically implanted in her. But the greatest question about Inception is how and why the film has become such a major hit. Unlike a lot of blockbusters, Inception is not easy to understand, and its varying themes, running the gamut from corporate espionage to questions of solipsism, dream structure and dream life, are not exactly the stuff of commercial film. Hitchcock’s Spellbound has some wonderful dream sequences, which were in fact storyboarded by Salvador Dali, but Inception offers more than just simple fragments and off-the-cuff musings. The understanding and manipulation of dreams is the palette from which the narrative is fashioned, though it might be argued that the attention to dream structure is superficial, owing, in the end, more to video games than to concerns with the relationship between sleeping and waking consciousness. But the film is fundamentally unsettling in the way it paints the mind’s vulnerability to suggestion. The original John Frankenheimer version of The Manchurian Candidate had a similar effect. However, cold war politics and torture effectively grounded it, creating a reassuring feeling of causality. Are audiences relating to Inception director Christopher Nolan’s vision of a purely subjective universe, in which the world outside the self partakes of little, if any, verifiable reality?

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Grave Matter

Did you know that there is a difference between a coffin, which has six sides, and a casket, which has four, or that casket sales are down, according to The Wall Street Journal? (“Casket Makers Dig In as Sales Take Hit,”, 2/24/10.) The Journal piece also points out that while sales hit a high of 1.9 million in 2000, they were down to 1.69 million for the year ending September 2009. Both the shaky economy and the increasing popularity of cremation are to blame. The article quotes John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of America, as saying that funerals cost an average of $7,400, while cremation comes in around $1,400. You can be cremated for 20% of what it costs to be buried. Still, there are careers to be made in both the casket and the coffin business. “Batesville Casket Company’s career paths are excellent, because at Batesville Casket you have the opportunity to truly create your own path,” says the company’s site. And we know where that path is leading—six feet under no doubt. Northern Casket offers oak, cherry, pine and enviro-caskets, but also offers rentals for those who want them. What does it mean to rent a casket? Is this for those people who don’t want to pay $7,400 for a funeral or who don’t have enough money in these tough times for a plot? In England that’s called a “council burial,” and the Times ran an obit several days ago about a famous British agent who died anonymously and in penury and was to be given a council burial until her medals were discovered in her apartment (“Eileen Nearne, Wartime Spy, Dies at 89,” NYT, 9/21/10). What if Avis and Hertz get into the casket rental business and blow Northern right off the map? Instead of landing at MSP or LGA and going to Hertz to get a car, terminally ill patients will rush to the Hertz counter to rent a midsize coffin or casket. They’ll probably think something like this: What a great idea. I can rent a casket with all the fixin's, and then when my funeral is over, get cremated for 20% of the price. Hamlet’s gravediggers will have to eat their own words. “Alas, poor Yorick” will no longer apply when there are no more skulls to be unearthed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Bowery

Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956) looks backwards to the great Russian dalliances with reality, like Dziga Vertov’s Man With the Movie Camera (1929), the documentary still-life work of Walker Evans (Rogosin knew James Agee, who worked with Walker Evans on the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men from 1941), and the work of neorealists like De Sica, who used real people to create classics like The Bicycle Thief (1948).  The current revival of On the Bowery at Film Forum is a reminder of how important its gritty realism, as in Hal Ashley’s Little Fugitive(1953), became for the development of the cinéma vérité movement and the French New Wave. Would we have Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), which used non-professional actors in documentary settings, without the precedent set by these two films? The New York of On the Bowery and Little Fugitive, with poverty lurking under elevated tracks, is similar, though the story of On the Bowery is really a subterfuge. Little Fugitive is a powerful narrative about a child who runs away to Coney Island, the victim of a prank in which he is made to think he has murdered his brother. On the Bowery is simpler. It’s the saloon that O’Neill painted so beautifully in Iceman, replete with pipe dreams, though minus a Hickey. The central character arrives on the Bowery and tries to stop drinking, but can’t. Ray Salyer plays the attractive young railroad worker with a drinking problem—Rogosin conscripted him for the film and he actually received some Hollywood offers after the movie was released. But, in keeping with On the Bowery’s theme of dispossession, Salyer simply disappeared and was never heard from again. Meanwhile, one of the commentators in a short film made by the filmmaker’s son, Michael, about the creation of On the Bowery, compares the portraiture, and especially a famed orgy sequence in which the camera creates a mural of inebriated faces, to Rembrandt. Cassevetes and a generation of French and American filmmakers who sought truth rather than escape in cinema draw the most obvious comparisons when it comes to this kind of cinematography, but the Rembrandt analogy is a show-stopper.

NB: Rogosin’s ownership of the Bleecker Street cinema, which showed many of the works that influenced him and went on to show films that were influenced by his work, his self-confessed drinking problem and his well-to-to background as the son of a prominent textile manufacturer are all salient bits of back story for viewers of OTB.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Throw the Bath Water out with the Baby

In an era in which everyone is trying to make ends meet, why not take your chances on some DeCoster eggs? With medical and dental insurance costs on the rise, and Republicans threatening to make Swiss cheese out of the Obama health care plan, it makes sense to cut corners. Warehousing and discounting have enabled the rise of Walmart and shopping clubs like BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s. But as the Times pointed out recently, there are many people who can’t even afford to stockpile. This has accounted for the rise of the dollar store, where it’s possible to purchase very small amounts of merchandise at bargain prices (“Stores Scramble to Accommodate Budget Shoppers,” NYT, 9/21/10). Now, a new market is opening for seconds—tarnished and even diseased goods. Say there’s a little salmonella in my eggs, and say they have even caused deaths to elderly patients, as some did at Bird S. Coler Hospital on Roosevelt Island (“An Iowa Egg Farmer and a History of Salmonella,” NYT, 9/21/10)—what is the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? In fact, sometimes it makes sense to throw out the baby and save the bathwater. Here you have millions, even billions of eggs that are going down the tubes, and yet you have needy families and hungry kids. One omelet looks as good as the next, and an argument can be made that a few salmonella infected eggs mixed in with some trichinosis infected bacon can add up to a satisfying Betty Crocker style breakfast. What better way to spur cash squeezed American families on their way to prosperity? Why should it be the burden of the eggs to make sure they get there?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Towering Words

Wells Tower is Raymond Carver minus the specifically lower-class settings and the minimalist language. It’s fun to think about what Carver’s editor Gordon Lish would have done if he’d gotten his hands on Tower’s work. Would he have proposed the same kind radical streamlining that has generated such controversy in the recent considerations of Carver’s oeuvre? Would he have tried to limit the palette, turning Wells into the equivalent of the 12-tone composer he made Carver into? Would he have eliminated the din and fashioned the prose into something spare and metallic to reflect the theme of dispossession? On the basis of the recently published New Yorker story, “The Landlord,” Wells deals with dispossession as Carver did, only in a different arena and with a broader scale, showing that it’s not merely the province of those who occupy modest digs in the Northwest. Significantly, the story is about someone who owns something, rather than a Carver character who can’t pay the rent. But the ownership itself is jeopardized by the kind of desperate and unruly tenants you might find in a Carver tale (both Armando Colon, the tenant, and Todd Toole, narrator Coates Pruitt’s foul mouthed maintenance man, fit the bill neatly). Sociologically, Tower’s characters fit beautifully into the era of sub-prime mortgages, which helped some members of the middle class leverage themselves into a state of economic oblivion. Pruitt’s 31-year-old daughter Rhoda is a sometime artist who has come back to live with him. She had an accident “while getting the hang of a radial-arm saw” and “the shock of the injury caused some of her hair to fall out.” Here is the manifesto for her latest artistic project: “To some extent, your problems with the real estate stuff, and my parallel humiliation at having to move in with you. But in a broader sense it’s about our collective lack of integrity and total fucking childishness in the wake of the financial crisis, i.e., the national epidemic of petulance and bratty outrage over the fact that poor people don’t get to buy castles on credit anymore, that execs don’t get G.D.P.-size bonuses, that not just any housewife with a real-estate license gets to be a millionaire, and that you can’t stick a chopstick in a dog turd and sell it at Gagosian for the price of a yacht. ‘A Pestilence of Petulance’ is what I’m tempted to call it but probably shouldn’t.” Even Lish might have been tempted not to edit that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Origin of the World

Prolepsis is the attempt to anticipate a question or an objection. So even though the question hasn’t been asked, the answer is yes. Yes, it is true that people think about sex all the time. A cursory review of the magazine rack at your local newsstand will reveal this—and this does not refer to Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler or any of the porn magazines that have had ignominious deaths at the hands of Internet sites that have usurped their sleaziness. Take, for instance, the current issue of People, with a bikini clad babe on the cover and the headline, “My New Body,” or the headline on a neighboring celebrity mag: “Ashton Cheats Again.” The question is not whether sex is on everybody’s mind, but whether there are any minds in which some form of sexuality is not present. One is hard put to find glossy magazines whose front pages are devoid of the mention of sex. One might have thought that elderly people, with their dying libidos, would have other things on their mind, but dementia has a disinhibiting effect that has made STD’s a major problem in nursing homes. Now, what about that category of people who disagree with the notion that sex is always on their minds, and still finds offense in Freud’s notion of infantile sexuality? No one can tell them what they are thinking, though an fMRI might easily show the brain lighting up in those areas dealing with sexual stimulation at precisely the moments when “the lady doth protest too much.” Sublimation is the process by which sexual energy is turned into art. So, if you claim you couldn’t possibly have been thinking about sex when you were looking at Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde,” since you were interested only in the beauty of the artist’s spread-legged rendering, then you were thinking about sex anyway.

Monday, September 20, 2010


A goose is an animal, but it also refers to uninvited fondling of the genital area. Scrooge bought the Cratchits a turkey after his bad dream, in which he comes up against The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But one wonders if Dickens wasn’t unconsciously putting Scrooge up to his old antics, to the extent that he wasn’t just being generous, but perverse. Let’s analyze the situation for a moment. Scrooge is the eponymous pinchpenny whose lack of eleemosynary feelings for his fellow man has turned him into a lonely old geezer (which is a form of goose). His visionary dream is actually quite typical of misers, since the only antidote to miserliness is the realization of mortality. But, once a pickle, never a cucumber again. Scrooge is coerced by his unconscious, and his sudden contrition is a Mephistophelian bargain in which, like the Iran-Contra arms deal, he is trying to trade figurative constipation for the eternal irrigation that many ascribe to paradise. Still, anyone who makes a bargain ends up being resentful. “Why couldn’t they like me for who I was?” the bargainer may complain. Thus, the turkey is basically a goose in turkey’s clothing (OK, turkey to goose is a stretch, but let’s willingly suspend disbelief for the sake of the point). Yes, Scrooge does offer a gift, but it's essentially a payback for the ostracism he has experienced for not being a “good” person. Hence, when he furnishes the holiday fowl, he is really telling the Cratchits that he wants to goose them. What better foreplay than a good goose?

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Carl Paladino, the winner of the Republican primary for New York Governor, has sent out “bigoted and pornographic emails,” and likened “Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver to the Antichrist” (“Paladino, Cuomo Rival, Set to Spend at Will,” NYT, 9/15/10), while his counterpart down in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, who won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate “over one of the state’s most popular and longest serving Republicans,” had previously gained notoriety due to her “dire warnings about the negative impact of masturbation” (“Rebel Republican Marching On, With Baggage," NYT, 9/15/10). But these victories by Tea Party candidates over mainstream Republicans Rick Lazio and Mike Castle are representative of a frustration amongst voters that is not only limited to the U.S. The kind of political Hail Marys that are ruining the Republican party’s chances of unseating the already weakened Obama initiative have been duplicated with uncanny similarity in Italy, where a party called the Northern League is run by Umberto Bossi, “who is known for extra salty language, wearing tank tops and continuing to smoke cigars even though a stroke took away a good part of his voice” (“A New Power Broker Rises in Italy,” NYT, 9/15/10). Bossi is threatening the old center-right leadership of Silvio Berlusconi in much the same way that the Tea Party candidates threaten the leadership of the Republican party. So we are seeing a so-called populist uprising against the perceived futility of mainstream politics appealing to either fundamentalism or ancient myths of identity. “Veneration of the river is central to the group’s murky origin myth, which centers on a vaguely Celtic-inspired separate nation called Padania,” the Times article says of Bossi's Northern League. Now, a once quirky group of extremists is receiving major support. But Democrats in the U.S. and liberals in Italy might want to temper their exuberance for these tea baggers and their ability to thwart the more traditional center-right candidates, on the basis of historical precedent. For $64,000, what famous movement of the 20th century does this remind you of?

Thursday, September 16, 2010


“The subconscious mind seemed to be in complete control and I did unpremeditated things which later turned out to be exactly right.” Charles Burchfield, the master watercolorist—whose work is the subject of an exhibition now running at the Whitney—wrote that in 1952. The exhibition includes a 1920 edition of the famed literary magazine The Dial that contains five Burchfields, along with Cezanne’s Claire de Lune and two drawings by Kahlil Gibran. Burchfield’s Winter Twilight (1930) is reminiscent of Hopper—a solitary storefront on a windblown street with silhouettes framed in the window. Clover Fields in June (1947) brings to mind Cezanne. Burchfield comments about another painting of threatening bare-branched trees at the edge of a swamp, which bears resemblance to Charles Addams’s Gothicism, “The mood I aimed at was the anger of God—a Good Friday mood.” In Autumnal Fantasy (1916-1944), nature is depicted as a beautiful bad dream in which the Nuthatch’s cry is visualized. Burchfield’s dire visual affect depicted an uninviting natural world, transformed into beauty by technique. In the beginning of his career, Burchfield painted what he called “conventions”—portraits of emotion, either externalized in nature or as interior states. Whether painting in the realist, surreal or abstract modes, this artistic credo would continue throughout his career.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Diasporic Dining XVIII: Eataly

You know what a fleshpot is. Eataly, the new Mario Batali food emporium on 23rd street, is a fresspot.  Gourmands are crowded together like the abused animals in Food, Inc., only the animals have no choice in the matter, while here the humans willingly undergo the experience of the goose on its way to becoming fois gras. Covetousness led Cain to slay Abel, but seldom has it led to the kind of suicidal thronging on display amongst the patrons of Batali’s experiment. Malthus would be proud, as would Swift, who in his infamous Modest Proposal suggested eating babies as a way to solve the hunger problem in Ireland. The ingenuity of the great salesman and promoter is to make people want to do something that they would ordinarily have second thoughts about, if they had their senses about them. Here people actually jostle to buy food to eat while standing in long lines to get a crowded table in a loud central atrium, where they pay large sums of money to not have their basic needs met. There is something charmless and impersonal about Eataly, and it’s ironic since Italy is a place filled with trattorias and ristorantes—along with rural spots in the mountains where elderly men play bocce—that are notable for their personal quality and intimacy. That old-world charm is why generations of Americans have flocked to Italy, and the absence of it in Batali’s latest environment is what makes Eataly a flop.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Letter from a friend: “You're not going to believe this. We went to Tang’s Garden since H was working late. The place was empty, at least so it seemed, and then I looked around a corner¾right under the hanging roast ducks were D and R. Apparently, they get together once a year on Labor Day at Tang's to discuss Freud or related topics.  Tonight was Tönnies's Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society). I had given a paper on the book in Freiberg back in the ‘80s, after the Eliade Festschrift thing in Bayreuth. I think D knew this, and she would have welcomed me with open arms if she weren't holding a duck drumstick and a copy of Bang the Drum Slowly in either hand. I'd brought my mitt, so I was able to field some questions, and afterwards we exchanged Weltaunschauung and the men shook their schlongs and we left. D asked about you and the family and I told her you'd been traveling, but would join us the next Zeit we got together, and then I finally said ‘Zay gezuntt’ and handed her a copy of Sein und Zeit.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lives of Our Leaders: The Republic

Plato believed that poets had no place in his Republic, and he had a point. Would you have wanted Ezra Pound or Marinetti, both fascist sympathizers, making decisions for you? Would you have wanted Eliot, an anti-Semite, as your minister of culture, or Lowell, a resident of McLean Hospital, as your secretary of state, despite his poetic stature and erudition? We love the beats⎯Ginsberg, Baraka, Ferlinghetti and Corso⎯but they were all plainly nuts. Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop were our high priestesses, but they loved poetry more than life itself. Anne Sexton, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath all killed themselves, and the Secret Service is better trained to deal with assassination than suicide. OK, Wallace Stevens sold insurance and could qualify as bridging the gap between imagination and reality, but would we really have wanted him as Treasury Secretary or Federal Reserve Chief? (Not that any of the recent occupants of these positions⎯Geithner, Bernanke, Greenspan or Volcker⎯have done better for lacking a muse). And then there is dear old wizened Robert Frost (who turned out to be not so dear) speaking in the snow at JFK’s inauguration. Where would he fit in our less-than-ideal republic? Yes, he knew something about the inner life and the road less travelled, but would that have really qualified him to be Secretary of the Interior or of Transportation? Yes, you have a point if you bring up Yeats. He understood something about the price we pay for our passions, but in the end he was too caught up with his Maud Gonne. Dante, who drew a map of hell with Virgil as his guide, and Homer, who wrote the greatest epic, seem to have possessed divine knowledge, but when push came to shove, would they have been able to apply it to commerce? And then there’s Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, the Ogden Nash of fighters. He became an elder statesman and prince, but can we ever forgive him for the way he talked to Joe Frazier?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Diasporic Dining XVII: The Bathroom at Lake Champlain Chocolates

Photography by Hallie Cohen

Everyone looks for something in a vacation, whether it is the still waters of a far off beach, verdant pine forests, lush gardens or the serenity that comes from hiking to great heights to escape the din of cosmopolitan life. But for those who seek nothing more than a good bathroom along the way, the shitter at the Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory on Pine Street in Burlington, Vermont, with its anti-bacterial soap and its Kimberly-Clark sensor-equipped paper towel dispenser, should be the destination of choice. This bathroom, with cheery Vermont paintings on its tiled walls, is private and public at the same to time, and really lives up to the euphemism “restroom,” to the extent that it can only be used by one person at a time. It smells of a disinfectant more herbal and potent than what is used at some gyms. For exercise enthusiasts, this is a bathroom large enough to perform squat thrusts after you have indulged in the free chocolate samples inside the factory. Environmental matters are a popular cause in Vermont, where clean air is as important to the economy as oil is in Texas. The bathroom at Lake Champlain Chocolates is the equivalent of a gusher in Texas or a gold mine in Alaska. This is not a mere bathroom, but a clear statement that haste makes waste when it comes to taking a dump, and what makes the experience so satisfying is that it’s situated in an environment that’s totally consecrated to desserts. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Diasporic Dining XVI: The Vermont Creemee

Photograph by Hallie Cohen

You get a creemee, which is maple syrup in soft ice cream, at the Grinder Place over the bridge from North Hero on an isle called La Motte, steps from the shrine of St. Anne, which is perched above the spot where Champlain landed and named his lake. Down in North Hero, a faded shuffleboard court overlooks the empty rafts sitting in the river, and far out a yellow seaplane idles. The season is ending and there are boats that have already been hoisted up on racks amidst the yard sales. There is another creemee place, Allenholm Farm, but that’s further down, off Vermont #2 in the town of South Hero, where you can also get something like a grinder at a place called Sebs. The skies are gray and bicyclists brave the rain, but there is nothing that will spare eternal summer, whose log is written (like the deeds in the Book of Life that Jews ante up for the impending Yom Kippur) on the weathered houses lining the route to the ferry going back and forth from the Champlain Islands to Plattsburg, New York. Plattsburg is the final stop on I-87, which passes Saranac, Scroon Lake, and the ominous Dannemora prison at Clinton, marked by a simple sign whose implicit admonition goes unheeded by the ubiquitous motorcyclists, with their superhuman heft, Gestapo helmets and horsepower You descend from the Adirondack mountains to Lake Champlain to find something timeless and perennial, a legendary dessert to reward the effort of your voyage.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Starting with an early book on Parkinsonism, Awakenings (which was later made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams), Oliver Sacks has written about neurological conditions with the drama of a fiction writer. Recently, he wrote a piece in The New Yorker about his own battle with prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces. Another condition, agnosia, is the inability to recognize objects—the syndrome that the subject of Dr. Sacks’s 1985 tome, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, suffered from. A complementary disorder is Capgras syndrome, in which the subject recognizes a face, but sees it as a mask occupied by an imposter. Richard Powers, a novelist and MacArthur fellow who has devoted his career to writing fiction about ailments of the mind, documents this condition in The Echo Maker. So we have novelists like Powers and Larry Shainberg (who wrote Memories of Amnesia, about a brain surgeon suffering from the aforementioned disorder) writing fiction about neurology and neuroscience, and neurologists and neuroscientists like Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran writing novelistically about the conditions they encounter in their work. Since the early ‘70s, when Sacks started to write poetically about neurological anomalies, the vocabulary of neurology and neuroscience has been coming into common parlance, much the way Freud’s discoveries of neurosis and hysteria did in early part of the last century. Today, parietal lobes, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are talked about the way the libido, the id and the superego were discussed when psychoanalysis first came under the scrutiny of the educated reader. This evolution in the way the functions and dysfunctions of the mind are described is significant in and of itself as a cultural phenomenon—whether looked at from the left or right side of the brain.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Howdy Doody: Gunslinger, Warmonger, Imperialist

Reading the obit of Edward Kean, the creator of The Howdy Doody Show, one can’t help thinking how much the show was influenced by many of the Westerns that preceded it, like The Lone Ranger during the Golden Age of Radio, and how much the show would go on to influence television Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Bonanza—shows that would be watched a decade later by the same generation that had grown up with the experience of Howdy as their first cowboy. If you talk to women who grew up in the ‘50s and loyally watched Howdy Doody, it becomes apparent that many of them still have a crush on the puppet, and even harbor sexual fantasies about what must have been, for a young child, a swashbuckling male figure. But in terms of genre art, where would Gunsmoke’s Chester, Matt and Miss Kitty be without Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Flub-a-Dub and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, who was indubitably the model for a number of barroom gals who would appear in the burgeoning genre of adult westerns? We think of Howdy Doody as a program epitomizing the innocence of early television, with its Edenic setting freed of horror and consequence. But Howdy Doody was first and foremost a Wild West show introduced by one Buffalo Bob—a hegemonist if ever there was one—who, if we were to research his backstory, probably got his soubriquet and earned his stripes by murdering bison and colonizing Indian lands. In this regard, Howdy Doody was a piece of indoctrination. Its subliminal message was Manifest Destiny. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Create a feeling of harmlessness and innocence to camouflage the aggressive desires that are holding sway. Would it be a stretch to see Howdy, the brave puppet on a string, as the model for the Raymond Shaw character played by Lawrence Harvey in the John Frankenheimer adaptation of Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zionism and Democracy

However much one believes in God or a spiritual life, once God gets into politics, trouble begins. Put another way, politics requires the language of empiricism and verifiability. Locke and Hobbes, who provide the philosophical bulwark for democracy, were empiricists. German metaphysics and idealist philosophy, culminating in Heidegger’s dasein, or “being there,” is great if you’re a phenomenologist, but Heidegger’s search for an unverifiable condition of ultimate truth might have led to his supporting Hitler. In a recent Times Op Ed piece, Gadi Taub, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, similarly differentiates between “the secular Zionist dream”—which “was fundamentally democratic” and followed from the ideals of Herzl and Ben Gurion—and the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (“In Israel, Settling for Less,” 8/30/10). Zvi Yehuda Kook “focused his father’s theological ideas around a single commandment: to settle all the land promised to the ancient Hebrews in the Bible.”  “His disciples,” Taub explains, “energized by a burning messianic fervor, took Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 as confirmation of this theology and set out to fulfill its commandment.” God would triumph over the ideals of democratic Zionism. The net result of the divine message is a quagmire. While Arabs, according to Taub, account for about one fifth of “Israel proper,” restoration of the biblical kingdom would eventually leave Jews outnumbered. “Israel would have to choose between remaining democratic but not Jewish, or remaining Jewish by becoming non-democratic. Israel’s enemies have long maintained that Zionism is racism and that Israel is an apartheid state. If the settlers succeed, they will turn this lie into a truth.” Taub’s Op Ed piece articulates the central quandaries of modern Zionism while also providing a brilliant argument for the necessity of a two-state solution. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Sound and the Fury

“Ozymandias,” the famous sonnet by Shelley, underlines the futility of human endeavor. “All is vanity,” says Ecclesiastes. Macbeth reiterates the sentiment when he describes life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Faulkner called his novel about the Compson clan of mythical Yoknapatawpha County The Sound and The Fury. Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus to describe the absurd condition of man, forever losing his footing, slipping two steps back for every one step forward, as he attempts to move his boulder up an impossible incline. The announcement about the reigniting of talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel by Hillary Clinton also brings to mind the notion of futility. Everyone wants peace in the Middle East, and yet in the face of repeated failure, the body politic becomes like a disappointed lover who has lost faith that his or her partner will ever stop cheating. In the face of repeated trauma, the body goes into a state of shock in which it’s impossible to care or feel. Meaning-making is a little like artificial numbers in mathematics. There is logic and sense to certain types of math—like the question of the square root of minus one—even without the existence of any referent, anything in reality to reify the thought process. Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction,” yet there seems to be a reverse process of spontaneous regeneration by which human history slogs forward in spite of wars and failures, and there is a new generation of peace-keepers to replace the generalissimos of the past. Netanyahu and Abbas may surprise us and turn out to be unlikely bedfellows, but if it isn’t them, it’s going to be someone else who will finally tame the monstrous cycle of retribution and realize the two-state solution, so that Palestinians and Israelis can get on with their lives.