Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs begins as a typical romantic comedy, albeit of a particularly sexualized type, since the protagonist Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a lothario who also happens to be on the cutting edge of Viagra marketing in the mid 1990s. Love is a drug for Jamie and he is also a salesman for a drug that produces erections, which makes him even more popular with both men and women. However, there are two peculiarities in the movie’s relationship with reality. The first concerns the drug manufacturer Pfizer, the appearance of which does not simply conform to the practice of product placement, whereby corporations pay to have their wares appear in films. Pfizer plays a major role both with regard to the anti-depressant Zoloft, which Jamie markets (in competition with Prozac) early in the film, and later of course with the appearance of Viagra. One might think that the machinations of drug salesmen for particular companies might be presented in a more veiled manner, with the names of the manufacturers and drugs disguised but easily parsed, but this is not the case. The other bit of sobering reality is the turn of plot whereby Jamie’s romantic interest Maggie (Anne Hathaway) turns out to be suffering from early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Suddenly Love and Other Drugs turns into a darker piece of popular entertainment, namely Love Story, another tale of romance interrupted by disease. Speaking in terms of the drug of popular entertainment and escape, the difference between these two films lies in the particular cocktail that is being offered. It’s as if we were mixing two previously incompatible substances, beer and wine—in this case sex comedy and melodrama—and then adding some sort of reality twizzler to produce a new, exotic drink.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Elements of Style

In a front page piece on the increasing prolixity and ambiguousness of Supreme Court decisions, Times reporter Adam Liptak found that the search for unanimity—an aim that Chief Justice Roberts has prioritized—has led to directionlessness, which may account for the increasing length of decisions. “Unanimous opinions are the most complex,” Liptak writes, citing a recent study (“Justices Are Long on Words but Short on Guidance,” NYT, 11/18/10). Interestingly, shortly after the lead-in, Liptak points to the fact that Brown v. Board of Education, a sweeping decision in the history of jurisprudence, took 4,700 words, while the recent Parents Involved v. Seattle, which only dealt with a part of the Brown case, racked up ten times the verbiage, “enough to rival a short novel.” (The same is true of “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, coming in at a cool 48,000 words, “or about the length of The Great Gatsby.”) Brown, for all its brevity, improved human life. Liptak’s piece, however, also illustrates that consensus is not the only cause of opaqueness. “A decision in May,” writes Liptak, “striking down life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders who did not kill anyone said only that states must provide ‘some meaningful opportunity to obtain release.’” Here, a decision that the court was divided on also seemed to be infected with an equanimity that castrated the very basis of the ruling. Of the decision’s vague phraseology, Justice Thomas wondered, according to Liptak, “what that could possibly mean.” Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a classic whose application has enormous impact both on syntax and, ultimately, thought. It was once de rigeur in our country’s finest institutions of higher learning. Simplicity was one of the underlying principals for composing pity, grammatically tight texts. Yet, “omit needless words,” one of Strunk and White’s prescriptions for concise writing, is not something that can always be applied when it comes to writing laws that appeal to all, or strive not to offend certain constituencies. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sauve qui peut

An internal combustion engine turns fuel into energy that powers things like pistons. There is a wonderful scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut), recently revived at Film Forum, which makes an engine out of bodies. Two prostitutes have been hired to service a wealthy businessman and his assistant. One prostitute, played by Isabelle Huppert, stands in front of the businessman. Every time his assistant licks her ass, she has to apply lipstick to the businessman’s lips. Meanwhile, every time the businessman steps on the other prostitute’s breasts, she has to blow the assistant. The actors mechanically emit sounds that enhance the machine-like effect. On one level, prostitution in the movie is a metaphor for the relationship between men and women—in one scene Huppert’s pimp beats her up and makes her say “no one can remain independent.” But on another the level, interdependence becomes a metaphor for mechanization, the division of labor and, inevitably, the alienation of man from the product of his labor, which, in the case of the scene in question, is physical love. One of Godard’s points is that love is no longer freed from the context of industrial society and the means and modes by which things are produced. The prostitute is not an exceptional creature, but rather an illustration of the commoditization that affects everyone. At one point Huppert meets up with Nathalie Bye, her counterpart in the film, who is attempting to break off her relationship with a filmmaker named Paul Godard. Huppert’s prostitute sells her body in order to buy the dwelling of a woman who has previously sold her soul. The quid pro quo is reminiscent of the earlier sex scene and the equation is also curiously similar: man + woman = 0.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

That American Life

Ira: (Voice-over) It was getting to be a dangerous situation, and something they really hadn’t planned on.  Many educated couples who listen to This American Life on their local NPR affiliate enjoy the show, but few get hooked the way the Epsteins did.

Dr. Epstein: I studied orthodontics at Penn, and later established a successful practice. At one point I’d heard that endodontics was a growing field, but I stuck with my dream of establishing an orthodontic practice. My patients were for the most part spoiled Manhattan private school kids whose parents sent them to orthodonists under the theory that flawless teeth would increase their chances of getting into Harvard. Then my wife listened to one of your episodes and something happened. Soon we were planning our schedules so that we could listen together. I remember the one about the woman who goes to Africa to be with her chimp. It was very touching because the chimp eventually leaves her and she stays on anyway.

Ira: If you could put it in words, what attracted you guys to the show?

Epstein: Well it wasn’t your voice. Both my wife and I have always found your voice very unprofessional, even grating. You sound like a weasel, I have to say.

Ira: So what do you think it was? You don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings. We at This American Life take pride in our no-holds-barred attitude towards American life, and that goes for the show itself.

Epstein: Well, I’d say that we both had this fantasy that someday you would do an episode about us, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

Ira: (V.O.) The admission reminded me of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium when addressed the UN. He said, “We shall bury you!” I think he said something worse, but that was the translation that was offered. I’d always thought that This American Life attracted its large radio audience because of the quality of the stories, and, without feeling vain, I thought that my narrations had something to do with it. Was it possible that there was a sizeable portion of our audience who listened simply because they hoped that someday they might be profiled? 

Ira: Wasn’t it magical thinking to believe that if you listened to the show you eventually would find yourself the subject of This American Life.

Epstein: Not really. We’d heard of other examples. For instance, the chimp lady apparently had been an avid listener to the show. I also knew an otolaryngologist who’d been a listener. In his case it was his kids who were the subjects of one of your portraits. Apparently, my otolaryngologist friend had been filling planes with bales of marijuana and doing quite a business running them between Key West and Ponce. His kids had been the ones who turned him in, and apparently the reason they’d done it had nothing to do with their concern about the illegality of the drugs, but rather with their feelings about the duty of citizens to pay taxes on imported items.  Both kids had phobias about the IRS, and I think it was one of the things you explored in that episode.

Ira: (V.O.) At this point I felt the need to cut the interview short so as not to perpetuate the false impression that listeners to This American Life would eventually find themselves on the air. Democracy is nice, but as producers we have to look for the best story. This is Ira Glass for This American Life.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Man with a Movie Camera

Wednesday’s Times reported on a WSJ article about an NYU professor, Wafaa Bilal, who is having a camera “surgically implanted in the back of his head for several months as part of an art project commissioned by the Qatar government” (“Art that Looks Backward,” NYT, 11/17/10). Bilal is accomplishing many things with his act, amongst them changing the definition of the hand-held camera (usually the wobbly, live-action effect is created by holding a camera; now it comes from placing it in the head). He is also changing the association we make when we see the title Man with the Movie Camera (usually we think of the Dziga Vertov classic of post-revolutionary Russia; now we will think of a medical procedure) and producing a new camera technique, which, for want of a better term, we might call the Orpheus effect—remember that bad things happen to Orpheus when he looks back at his beloved Eurydice. Apparently, NYU is all up in arms about the privacy implications. But how is it an invasion of privacy to discover someone talking behind your back? First of all, look at Linda Blair’s famed 360-degree head turn in The Exorcist. Willian Friedkin made cinematic history with that iconic image, but he also distilled the essence of a unique contortion that had been going on at New York literary parties for decades. It’s clear that NYU needs to protect its students, but Bilal’s “art project” is just a form of backhanded realism. It simply points to a phenomenon (like marijuana smoking) that, while not condoned by law, has become so commonplace as to defy jurisprudence. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ting's the Thing

What do you do if you are a Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist who is passed over for work on the LHC? It’s a tough job market out there, but it would seem that having a Nobel on your CV would knock down more than a few doors. If you’re Samuel Ting, you move from the micro- to the macrocosm, from the tiny bits of matter out of which matter came to the product of it all—the stars. These two worlds constitute the two elements of the Unified Theory that Einstein was never successful in completing, though it was a solution he aspired to. Described by the Times as “one of science’s great control freaks and worrywarts,” Ting, a 74-year-old M.I.T professor, “discovered a particle that would revolutionize physics, but he took so long checking for errors and looking for more particles that another lab found it and he wound up splitting the Nobel” (“A Costly Quest for the Dark Heart of the Cosmos, NYT, 11/16/10). That was back in 1974. Today, Ting is the author of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a device that studies the dark matter that Ting and other scientists think is the glue that holds the universe together, and which is due to be flown on the space shuttle Endeavor to the International Space Station on February 27. Essentially, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is the LHC on wheels, what the Times calls “an-eight ton assemblage of magnets, wires, iron, aluminum, silicon and electronics that is one of the most ambitious and complicated experiments ever to set out for space.” The $ 1.5 billion dollar project, which according to the Times has involved 600 scientists from 16 countries, aims at revealing the mysterious substance “whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.”  Some people will go to any lengths to get a job.

Friday, November 19, 2010

127 Hours

Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a perfect film school assignment. How to make a movie about a guy who is trapped by a rock—more specifically, a rock that pins his arm so that he can’t move from the brooding beauty of a remote crevice that threatens to become his tomb? It’s also a parody of the notion of individualism and independence. The character of Aron (James Franco) is as industrious as the actor who plays him, and whose hyperactive productivity has been widely documented lately. Aron is haunted throughout the action by the fact that he never returned a telephone call from his mother or told anyone where he was going when he set off on his own for the mountains. If he had told someone, they might have noticed he was gone in time to save him. The answer to the film school assignment, if you are not a student but legendary director Danny Boyle, is to have a flair for fantasy and for depicting the mind in a state of shock. The famous toilet sequence of Trainspotting is the embryo of Boyle’s  style, and its swirling appears like a footnote in the scenes involving liquids, whether they be water or urine. On the matter of bodily functions, it’s lucky that the real-life character Franco plays was not a vegetarian, as he might have had qualms about drinking his own blood, as he does to survive in the movie. On the matter of fantasy, there are two kinds that the movie depicts: that which occurs in Aron’s head and that which is played out for the camera Aron uses to record his experience. At one point, Aron realizes his fantasy life when he masturbates while looking at a photo of a female hiker he’d met along the way. “This rock has been waiting for me its entire life, waiting to come here, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my whole life,” he says. Ironically, Aron’s statement is discountenanced by the sudden turn-around of his predicament that the movie so brilliantly portrays. One moment he is free, insouciant, daring reality, and the next he is totally humbled and reduced. There is no build-up, no intimation of the fate that will befall him, unless of course you’ve read the reviews.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yet Another Solution to the Health Care Crisis

Walgreens now provides flu shots, advertising that they’re covered by most health insurance policies and you don’t have to bother with long waits and the difficulty of getting an appointment from your healthcare provider. If you go into a Walgreens, the pharmacist will come out from behind the cash register where he or she normally takes prescriptions, put on rubber gloves and expertly plunge the syringe into your bicep muscle. With the Obama health plan still jeopardized by Republican attempts to whittle down its impact, discount pharmacy chains, which are proliferating virally, may soon take up the slack. Does it seem implausible that pharmacists will do prostate and colorectal exams? Will there be a room in the back of Walgreens with stirrups so that the pharmacist can offer Pap smears on the go? If I’m having chest pains, will I go into a Walgreens to get an EKG? And if I’m suffering from a headache, might I pop in for an fMRI before I bother to take two Tylenols. Pharmacists are not trained to take the place of doctors—they fill prescriptions rather than prescribing. But there are a thousand other tasks associated with your yearly physical that could easily be handled by a discount pharmacy chain. Amongst these are the taking of pulse and body temperature, X-raying the lungs, examining the eyes for dilation (something many pharmacists who are experienced in dealing with addicts have practical experience in doing) and measuring for height and weight. And who’s to say that the average pharmacist can’t triage, performing minor and even major surgery when necessary? Is it farfetched to think that the solution to our healthcare crisis may lie in the big discount pharmacy chains: Walgreens, Duane Reade, CVS and Rite-Aid? What about having a triple-bypass at Duane Reade instead of merely renewing your Lipitor? What about having a prefrontal lobotomy, which makes it unnecessary to continue coming back for SSRI’s. Want therapy? What better place to start than under the harsh white light of the pharmacy, with its shelves of condoms, lubricants and pregnancy test kits? Suffering from appendicitis? Walk over to your CVS in the next decade and the infected organ will be removed by liposuction. Perhaps Walgreens and the other big chains will start making deliveries, and not just of drugs. A pharmacist is not a licensed doctor or surgeon, and some procedures might not work out. But what M.D. bats a thousand?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Alberto Moravia wrote La Disprezza in 1954, and the novel later became the basis for Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mepris (Contempt). Both the novel and the movie concern a hack writer, Paul, who is hired to pen a latter-day version of The Odyssey. Contempt stars Fritz Lang as the director, Jack Palance as the producer, Michel Piccoli as Paul and Brigitte Bardot as the writer’s all-unknowing wife Camille. The poet Anne Carson touched on her recurring themes of French New Wave cinema and classics, of which she is a professor at the University of Michigan, in the recent Academy of American Poets Blaney Lecture, held at Manhattan’s Philoctetes Center. Carson provided a Marxist economic analysis of the Homeric world in which the society of elites pass their wealth around “to reify their noble status.” Lewis Hyde and Marcel Mauss’s notion of the gift economy received a new interpretation from Carson, who described the gift as both inalienable and a sign of dependency between the giver and the recipient. Carson contrasted this with the mercantile exchange of goods for profit between two independent parties. What does this have to do with Contempt? The answer was provided with a segue into the making of Godard’s film, for which American producer Joseph E. Levine paid five million francs to hire Bardot, and then blew his top when there were no nude scenes. Godard is the latter-day Odysseus in Carson’s retelling of the film’s creation myth, full of canniness and irony, knowing how to bridge the gap between the gift (the opportunity to create art) and his need to survive as a filmmaker. Neither Bardot nor the uneducated character she plays is a Penelope, but Carson quoted Oscar Wilde“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”in explaining Godard’s caving to the lure of a box-office draw like Bardot in his odyssey to become one of the major figures of the Nouvelle Vague

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Social Network

Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." "Style is content" is another shibboleth of the modernist movement, which began to recognize that context—the way in which the images and text that make up so-called content are ingested and regurgitated—is as important as the content itself. Think about what you remember when you recall a movie or television show and it will soon become apparent that style outweighs the message. You may not remember the plot of The Manchurian Candidate or Psycho, but you will surely remember the paranoiac style. This emphasis on cultural context is at the heart of the deconstructionist view of literature, in which texts are value-free products of the psychosocial moments that produce them. Thus it is a curiosity that The Social Network, which purports to deal with the latest revolution of the Internet medium, a revolution which some experts believe is tantamount to the invention of email itself, is such an anachronism. The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, whose Seven was one of the most terrifying essays of style of its decade, approaches its subject almost entirely in terms of gossipy content of the litigious variety (the plot is structured around the suits that have been filed against Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, by three of his Harvard classmates, the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo Saverin, who helped found the company). Facebook may have been started as a dating site (with gossip correctly identified by Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, as the grist for its mill), but its implications have phenomenological consequences that far exceed any of the intentions delineated in Fincher’s movie, which is full of girls at parties in Cambridge and Palo Alto drinking too much and taking off their clothes. Not the least of the concerns is the nature of personality itself. The concept of transparency, which Facebook introduces into the cyber universe, runs in direct contradiction to the previous anonymity of Internet life, with its avatars and screen names. Facebook presents human personality as a series of surfaces defined by preferences that become apparent from the consuming habits of its members. The comparison between the view of personality that Facebook espouses and that of modern depth psychology, with its notion of unconscious life, is equivalent to the comparison between the kind of language philosophy advocated by a different set of Cambridge thinkers, almost a century ago, and the metaphysics propounded by German idealist philosophers in places like Freiberg, Marburg and Heidelberg centuries before that. Sadly, The Social Network totally trivializes the significance of the revolution it heralds.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Raging Bull

The locution “the revival of Raging Bull” is quaint when you think about it. But the movie is indeed making a comeback, like its subject made when he reinvented himself as a performer—a transition that, at least according to Scorsese’s film, didn’t come as easily to him as his stalking style of fighting. There is a term in boxing called “walking your man down,” which is what Jake LaMotta did in the brilliantly recreated Sugar Ray Robinson bouts, which are right up there with Foreman and Ali, Ali and Frazier, Hagler and Hearns and, most recently, Gatti and Ward. Parenthetically, there is something about Arturo Gatti’s tragic end (was it suicide or homicide?) that is reminiscent of the decline of LaMotta that Raging Bull depicts. Fighters pay a price. Jerry Quarry suffered brain damage and one wonders if Ali’s Parkinson’s, like LaMotta’s severe paranoia, was a result of all the blows he took. In his last bout with Sugar Ray, he simply dropped his hands and endured the fury of his opponent’s punches. He couldn’t win that fight, but his victory was to walk over to Sugar Ray’s corner and taunt him with the fact that he never went down. In one scene in the film, the then new-comer and Scorsese discovery Cathy Moriarity, playing LaMotta’s bride-to-be, says to Robert De Niro’s LaMotta, “Nice car.” “Like that car?” LaMotta responds. “It’s nice,” she says. The exchange takes place through the fence outside a public swimming pool in the Bronx. The romance takes off, but the lines, which were plainly improvised, are like the reverse of the expression “a picture speaks a thousand words.” In this case, a few muted words conjure a thousand images. At the end of the film, the once trim LaMotta is now an overweight has-been, rehearsing Marlon Brando’s famous lines from On the Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender.” The words are comparatively pithy, but the great genius of De Niro, practicing in front of a mirror like fighters shadow box (and reminiscent of his performance in Taxi Driver), is in communicating so much more than what is said. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eulogy to Those Who March to the Beat of a Different Drummer

“He marched to the beat of a different drummer” is a derogatory description of the non-conformist. We are all supposed to goose-step to the same drummer, and anyone who heeds a different beat will not be the kind of majorette we want in our parade. Those who march to the beat of a different drummer end up who knows where. Do they become toy soldiers? Do they end up encased in those novelty crystal balls with the fake snow? Do they wind up as prostitutes or worse? Do they get syphilis and go mad like Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts (a play whose greatness may not be sufficiently credited by contemporary critics)? The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski marched to the beat of a different drummer. He had brains and talents that could have made him rich, but he chose to live like a hermit and hurt people. The average member of our band of weary travelers who marches to the beat of a different drummer isn’t so extreme. You can usually identify someone who is going to be out of step even before they set foot on the pavement. Firstly, those who march to the beat of a different drummer are usually the ones who don’t realize they have a big glob of green snot hanging from their nose. Then there are the ones who locate the snot and see nothing wrong with eating it. If you have ever gone to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and seen a majorette out of step because they are trying to eat their own snot at the same time as they’re marching, you will know exactly what we mean. Does anyone remember Tiny Tim or Arnold Stang, who did the Chunky commercials? They both marched to the beat of different drummers, but neither ate their own snot or sent lethal packages to computer scientists in the mail.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In the Spanish Manner

The Spanish Manner: Drawings From Ribera to Goya at the Frick is like precognition. If one had been alive to see these works in the 16th or 17th Century, one would have been able to travel through a wormhole to the future. The prescient character of art and the way it reflects both the strivings and turbulence of the mind never ceases to amaze. Here we see the seeds of the Spanish temperament that produced Dalì’s “The Persistence of Memory” and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. All the ingredients of the surrealist nightmare are represented: sex, extreme aggression (the auto da fé), and the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. “Studies of  Two Ears and a Bat”  by Jusepe de Ribera, with its inscription, “FULGET SEMPER VIRTUS” (Virtue Shines Forever), is hung next to a depiction of an enormous head covered with Lilliputian figurines. In Goya’s albums, which the curators describe as “a form of talking to himself,” there are drawings of women fighting, of a defrocked nun. “Beggar Holding a Stick” is a picture of poverty that foreshadows social satirists like Daumier. Like a graphic artist, Goya uses captions like “you are having a bad time” and “don’t fill the basket so full.” There is the torture of a man by Strappado, in which the shoulders are dislocated, and even the memory of horrible torture and mutilation in a drawing subtitled, “He Appeared Like This, Mutilated, in Zaragoza, Early in 1700.” “Tuti li Mundi” (Peepshow) is a garish drawing of a woman leering at the ass of a man looking into what is obviously a peep device. The Frick show is small in scale, but haunted by the future it augurs.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Waste Land

Lucy Walker’s Waste Land is a film about Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist who, to put it euphemistically, uses organic matter in his art. The net result of his preoccupation, which started with making portraits of children out of sugar to point out the sweetness that was missing in their lives, becomes a project based on the Jardim Gramacho, the enormous garbage dump in Rio where equality finally asserts itself when the waste produced by millionaires is mixed with that of the impoverished occupants of the favelas. The catadores who occupy the dump are pickers of recyclable goods. From the beginning, comparison with the artist is unavoidable—the artist recycles reality just as the pickers recycle garbage, transforming often-painful circumstances into beauty. The dump, in fact, looked at from afar, resembles a palette, in much the way that Monet’s water lilies assume their form when looked at from the distance. Muniz, who himself grew up in a poor family, employs extensive art historical referents. In one iconic setup, for instance, he employs a pose based on David's Marat, using a tub that has been extricated from the garbage. The dump’s resident intellectual, an autodidact who has read a volume of Machiavelli’s The Prince that he found in the detritus, compares Rio to the world of Machiavelli and its fiefdoms. The transformative power of art is another theme the film explores, since Muniz looked at the film as a social act, in which his pickers would participate in and profit from the production of art. The project that Munoz describes is utopian, in that it aims at liberation, and yet it is curiously Candidian. The film ends with Muniz offering a whole new world and life to his subjects (one of the most affecting scenes takes place at an auction in London where the work is being sold off), whose expectations are heightened and whose ability to survive without him must be a source of concern to both Muniz and anyone who views the filmic document of this esthetic and social experiment.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Grand Inquisitor

The Times reported that two of the names on the bomb packages sent to synagogues in Chicago by Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen were addressed to famous Inquisitors who had persecuted Muslims in medieval times. Diego Deza, a successor to the infamous Tomás de Torquemada, was one of the names, and Reynald Krak “…is another name for Reynald of Châtillon—a French knight of the Second Crusade who wantonly killed Muslim pilgrims and was later beheaded by Saladin, the Kurdish warrior famous for his defeat of Western invaders in the 12th century” (“In Parcel Bomb Plot, 2 Dark Inside Jokes,” NYT, 11/2/10). It is curious that the terrorists sent bombs addressed to Inquisitors to synagogues, since both Jews and Muslims faced a common fate at the hands of the Inquisition. In any event, this strain of terrorism seems like something out of a Dan Brown novel in which the past itself actually plays a murderous role. But the curious element is the significance that centuries-old conflicts hold for the modern-day terrorist mind. This was particularly obvious in the massacres at Sarajevo during the Bosnian-Serb conflict, in which the place itself was so resplendent with both relatively recent (the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated World War I) and more ancient hostilities between Christians and Muslims. These conflicts seethed beneath the surface normalcy that had been cultivated during the Tito era, in which ethnicity was subsumed under the ideology of a benevolently despotic totalitarian state. Stephan Daedalus comments that “history is a nightmare,” and it always creates a shudder when one realizes how powerful historical memory is and how it’s passed on to generation after generation. Who would have thought that names like Reynald de Châtillon and Diego Deza could be on the minds of jihadists in Yemen, a country that, on the space-time continuum, seems light years from The Crusades?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Paris Journal XIV: Street Signs

Streets signs are dramatic in Paris. Walk along the rue de Rennes. As it approaches the boulevard Raspail, where the mythic Sevres-Babylone subway is located, you spot a sign—an arrow pointing straight ahead for Saint Germain and à droite for Montparnasse and Denfert Rochereau. One sign encompasses the greatness of art and literature epitomized by Dumas, Balzac, Proust, Huysmans, Zola, Rodin, Renoir and Picasso. Travel further down the rue de Rennes to rue du Vieux Colombier and you will come to the awning of the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, established in 1913 by Jacques Copeau and now one of three Parisian venues for the Comédie Française. On the rue Servandoni, a small pathway near the Luxembourg gardens, there is a plaque with the inscription, Ici Messire François de Chansiergues d’Ornano, Diacre Chanoine d’Uzes, qui repose en l’Eglise Saint Gervais, enterprit la fondation des Petits Seminaires, 1666. The famed Hôtel Lutetia, which was once Gestapo headquarters, stands with its auspicious maroon canopies at the corner of the boulevard Raspail and the rue de Rennes. On a wall next to the front entrance is a sign whose gravitas is conveyed by its simplicity, stating pithily, Hôtel Lutetia—Rive Gauche, and further down, with its elegant department-store-style turning door, is another sign, which reads, in part, Leur joie ne pouvait effacer l’angoisse et la peine des familles des milliers de disparus qui attendirent vainement les leurs en ces lieux. En Anglais, “Their joy couldn’t erase the anguish and the pain of the families of the thousands of disappeared who waited vainly for their loved ones in these places. This inscription was put up on the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Paris Journal XIII: Voix Douce

American radio and television commercials have a rendezvous with reality. It’s as if they’re stuck in the Ashcan School of art. Even advertisements for Charmin toilet paper or feminine hygiene products designed to prevent embarrassment on heavy days, or Cialis for men, created to prevent embarrassment on soft ones, have a guttural appeal. It’s as if the advertising were based solely on the principal of identification. Naturally, all advertising also functions as idealization, but how do you idealize the adult diaper or the ambulance-chasing law firm that will win you millions after a neuro-surgeon operates on the wrong side of your brain? But  if American advertising is marooned in the world of stark reality—with lingerie ads for plus-size women that make them look like paratroopers about to make a jump—then the Twilight Zone of French advertising is a combination of the romantic pre-Raphaelite world of Millais and the painting of academics like Poussin, with their classic figures in sylvan settings. There is nothing like the female voix on a French voiceover. Listen carefully and you will fall in love with her, or at least the Trojans she is trying to sell. No one has ever talked to you this way, in or out of a commercial. Listening to this voix douce féminine, or even its strong, all-knowing male counterpart, you begin to question your own existence. You are in love and you wonder why you have wasted a lifetime using Charmin when you could have moved to Paris and wiped your ass with an infinitely more desirable French product. Driving from the airport in a taxi and hearing a female voice intoning mangez un sac de nos cacahuètes is like listening to Mata Hari. You will gladly forswear your nuts. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Paris Journal XII: Irène Némirovsky (1903-1942)

“As of the summer of 1942 and due to the use of files established after the promulgation of the German decree making it obligatory for all the Jews to be registered in census, the Jews of France were hunted down and systematically rounded up by the French police and the Nazi occupying forces” (Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris). 76,000 Jews were deported, many of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 3,000 were sent to camps in France, while another 1,000 were executed on the spot. One of these boys was Edouard Schiff, born in 1937 and deported in 1942 when he was five. His picture is one of thousands preserved at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. Another was Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky, who was born in Kiev and died at Auschwitz in 1942, was the author of ten novels, including David Golder, published in 1929 and made into movie by Julien Duvivier in 1930. L’héritage familial, le souvenir d’être Russe, l’étrangete d’être juive, la volonté d’être francaise—“family heritage, the remembrance of being Russian, the strangeness of being Jewish, the wish to be French”—were some of the themes that the curator of the exhibit at the Shoah Memorial has singled out in Némirovsky’s work. The author, whose oeuvre has been compared to Tolstoy, Balzac and Dumas in its realism, was what we now call an assimilated Jew, and her earliest memories where not of the pogroms, which occurred in Kiev from 18-20 October 1905, but of the Carnival at Nice, which she saw in 1906 at the age of three. Her parents used their wealth to escape their ethnicity and eventually emigrated to France. Némirovsky disdained her mother, and David Golder, the story of a Jewish businessman, in many ways seems to be a roman à clef about her father Léon, who was a banker. She received criticism about the novel in the Jewish press. Portraying the world of moneyed Jews was regarded as a form anti-Semitism. But even Némirovsky’s baptism and conversion to Catholicism in 1939, which appears to have been a defensive measure in the face of the growing anti-Semitism she faced, didn’t spare her. Némirovsky wrote, Si le bonheur n’existe pas, il y en a du moins un contrefaçon assez exacte ici bascréer; créer de la vie ou de l’art, peu importe, créer est un plaisir plus que humaine, créer est le passe-temps des dieux.  (“If happiness doesn’t exist, there is at least something close enough—to create. To create from life or from art, it doesn't matter. To create is a pleasure more than human, to create is the pastime of the gods.”) Némirovsky wrote that in 1920 when she was only 17 and had yet to live her short, complicated life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

East of Eden

In the prelapsarian world, nakedness was not met with self-consciousness. Innocence prevailed and men and women defecated and urinated like cosmopolitan dogs, unashamedly leaving their piles or lifting their legs against corner lampposts. The invention of shame and modesty are not products of sin but of consciousness, of the thinking “I.” Why does the awareness of the self lead to the need to cover it up on both literal and metaphorical levels? What secrets does the “I” possess? Here is the point where sin comes in. Desire in Homo sapiens is partially an invention of consciousness, and leads to longing of the kind that Eve suffered when she was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit. Actually, nudity is only a subterfuge, a warning signal about the dangers of self-revelation. For instance, sexual arousal, in the surging of blood through the penis, the vagina’s lubricity, or the hardening of nipples, provides knowledge to the extent that it reveals what someone is thinking, or, more accurately, feeling. Perhaps this is the knowledge that hangs from the tree wherefrom Eve plucked the forbidden fruit. Human beings are possessed of a highly developed cerebral cortex, which provides the neural substrate for the notion of Orwell’s Big Brother. “Big Brother is watching” refers to none other than Freud’s superego, serving as night watchman over desire-producing faculties. Thought is the crime that nakedness scurries to cover up.