Monday, February 28, 2011

Nabokov Under the Glass

In a review/essay in the February 4 Times Literary Supplement, Thomas Karshan comments about Nabokov, “In his enormous English edition of Eugene Onegin, he unearthed the gargantuan root-system of poetic allusion that feeds Pushkin’s novel in verse. He (Nabokov) mocked and celebrated the elephantine pedantry of that edition in his novel Pale Fire, which is composed of a 999-line poem by imaginary poet John Shade, and a textual apparatus written by a crazed scholar, Kinbote” (“Nabokov in Bed,” TLS, 2/4/11). Karshan goes on to distinguish between two of Nabokov’s characters, Kinbote and his uncle Conmal, who simply enjoys reading, as a way of discussing the antinomies of Nabokov’s own personality and the critical approaches these dualities propose. Eric Naiman, a latter day Kinbote, whose Nabokov, Perversely is reviewed in the Karshan’s piece “believes that Nabokov seeded throughout his major works the syllables of various dirty words so as to express ‘art’s necessary perversity.’” Karshan points to Naiman’s analysis of the words “associate” and “banal” in Bend Sinister as containing the roots “ass” and “anal,” and revealing “clues to a homosexual subtheme in the book.” “Conrad” and “constructed” in Lolita conjure the French “con,” meaning “idiot,” and the Spanish “with,” which one would suppose functions as some sort of double entendre. In Pnin, “chat” is of course “pussy,” and words like “very,” “university” and “discovered” contain a root of “perverse.” Karshan, who goes on to review two other Nabokov critiques in his essay, concludes about Naiman, “There is, then, a fascinating book to be written about the perverse reading that would do justice to Nabokov, but Nabokov, Perversely is not that book.” But it’s fun to think of the writer as creating antibodies like a sufferer of an autoimmune illness, which attacks the organism itself. Was it the nature of Nabokov’s own particular brand of esthetic paraphilia that he set out to ridicule the edifices he so painstakingly created?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Big House

Prison is the ultimate gated community. When you think about it, nothing beats a prison when it comes to exclusivity. Not everyone can get into a prison, and it’s even harder to get out. A prison is often called The Big House, which is another way of solidifying the connection between incarceration and social elevation. The Big House is the ultimate mansion we drive by in awe. If you are ever upstate and pass facilities like Sing Sing or Dannemora, you will definitely experience a feeling similar to that evoked by the great houses once occupied by robber barons in places like Newport, RI. The prison is no more accessible than homes occupied by the grand old families, such as the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. In this regard, the superrich live in a state of isolation that resembles the lot of prisoners. Of course it will be argued that rich people can come and go as they please in their luxury cars, yachts and private planes, but the freedom is an illusion, in some ways not far from the illusion that all ordinary people live with, i.e., that they are free to control their destinies when in fact they occupy little cells of routine. Inhibition and self-prescribed repression make their worlds into unwitting prison cells in which they aren’t free at all. Prisons are violent places, but in a sense they are also very safe. Those who have committed atrocities are protected from the retribution of their victims. Further, they get to live in the company of others who share a topsy-turvy set of values in which to be very bad—by society’s standards—is to be very good. Hardened criminals essentially have excelled at what they do, and their reward is to be sent to a penitentiary: a place where they get the satisfaction and pleasure that derives from paying penance for their sins.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lady Gag Order

It used to be that spanking was a playful S&M activity, a holdover from the world that Steven Marcus described in The Other Victorians. Regressive childhood associations were reinforced when the naughty boy or girl, having had his or her pants pulled down, got a red bottom after being bent over someone’s knee. It was all fairly mild stuff that played upon notions of good and bad. But the ante is going up when it comes to the sexually explicit material that can be found on the Internet. Gone are the fake squeals of pain and pleasure that used to accompany old-fashioned videos, with their nurses or police uniforms, depending on the side of the dominance/submission divide a porn actor or actress was portraying. What seems to be selling now are real tears. The fourth wall has broken down and many online sexual sites specialize in producing scenarios in which the “actors” fall apart on camera. For all the viewer knows this could be part of the script, in much the same way that the Stage Manager addresses the audience in Our Town. Or it could be real. If an actress has had enough of being whipped, gang raped, gagged, facialized, asphyxiated, golden showered or expectorated on and she has a nervous breakdown on camera, all the better. The metteurs-en-scène, rather than feeling irritated by the divagation, seem to revel in it in the same way that credit card companies enjoy making more money when their customers fail to fulfill their obligations. Why do people enjoy seeing sex that appears to be a violation? Why do car drivers slow down to ogle horrible accidents? Why is this trend in pornography more prevalent today than it was in the past? Who knows? 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Excerpted from the 2011 Commencement Address, College of Tyranny

Here is a tip for the class of 2011 at the College of Tyranny: You can’t have WikiLeaks if you don’t have Internet. As the Times reported on Wednesday, “In a span of minutes just after midnight on January 28th, a technologically advanced, densely wired country with more than 20 million people online was essentially severed from the global Internet” (“Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet,” NYT, 2/16/11). According to the Times, China has also created “an elaborate national filtering system known as the Golden Shield Project,” which enabled it in 2009 to “shut down cell phone and Internet service amidst unrest in the Muslim region of Xinjian.” In effect, the Internet has become a legislative body and news organization rolled into one, and you need a certain degree of freedom—say the equivalent of the conventional bomb that detonates a nuclear device—in order to pave the way for a full blown explosion of liberty. Now, letting a country roll back into darkness is not a terribly bad idea from a strategic point of view. Pol Pot did precisely that when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and North Korea is almost Internet-free (although Kim Jong-il himself, according to his Wikipedia citation, loves “surfing the net”). A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but a lot of knowledge is virtually useless if there is no one there to receive it. There would be something innocent and almost Rousseauesque about a world without leaks or pornography, a world where Eve was too afraid to reach for the forbidden fruit, if it weren’t for the fact that such a world could only be attained through the repression of thought. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Life or Deficit

Yesterday, the Times ran a front-page piece datelined Washington. It began, “As the players here remake the nation’s vast regulatory system, they have been grappling with a subject that is more the province of poets and philosophers than bureaucrats: what is the value of human life?” (“As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret,” NYT, 2/16/11). The EPA says $9.1 million according to the Times, a bump of $2.3 from the Bush years. $7.9 says the FDA, a whopping $2.9 increase from 2008. The Transportation Department logs in with a mere $6M. But there are fine points: “…the E.P.A. said it might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths since cancer kills slowly…and Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.” In spite of the statistical underpinnings, much of this does seem to have philosophical import. For instance, according to the Times, the previous administration “rejected a plan in 2005 to make car companies double the roof strength of new vehicles.” In a gesture that a utilitarian like Peter Singer of Princeton might have something to say about, the administration concluded that the added expense of reinforcing the roofs “would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million.” One problem here is that we are facing a projected deficit against which any value we might try to ascribe to life simply pales. You may be worth $7.9M, but what’s that in comparison to $1,400,000,000,000, the approximate projected shortfall of the economy in 2011? Another problem is that statistics are not very helpful when it comes to evaluating individual lives. Some people are just worth more than others. Are we to follow the E.P.A. and uniformly value every nasty gossip at $9.1M? Is every snitcher, backbiter and, yes, philanderer going to earn the F.D.A’s new $7.9M valuation? America prides itself on being a meritocracy. If we are going to put a new value on human life, let’s do it on a case-by-case basis. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gene Therapy

The Times reported yesterday, “Berlusconi denies wrongdoing and has said he has no intention of stepping down” (“Trial Is Set for Berlusconi in Prostitution Case,” NYT, 2/15/11). While Berlusconi and his heartthrob, the now 18-year-old Karima el-Mahroug, aka Ruby the Heart-Stealer, may not have had sex, the prime minister, according to the Times, “gave her 7,000 euros, about $9,450, the first time she visited his villa for a party last spring.” This tops the $4,300 Eliot Spitzer paid for his first tryst with Ashley Dupré, which included, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, a $1,100 down payment to the agency for future work. Maybe Berlusconi should have used the moniker George Fox, as Spitzer did when he checked into room 871 at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Even worse was Berlusconi’s apparent attempt to get RHS (Ruby Heart-Stealer) off the hook for a theft charge. The Times article explains that “Mr. Berlusconi has said he called the police to avoid ‘an international diplomatic incident’ because he had been told that the Moroccan-born Ms. Mahroug was the niece of Hosni Mubarak, then the president of Egypt.” Perhaps Berlusconi was not being entirely disingenuous. After all, Hosni Mubarak was also someone who had “no intention of stepping down.” Is it possible that Hosni and Silvio are in fact related and share similar genes? DNA analysis is routinely used in rape cases, but this might be the first time it could be used to explain the stubborn and despotic behavior of international leaders. If there is such a gene pool, then Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is probably also swimming in it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dukes of Hazard

The January/February issue of The Atlantic ran a piece by Caitlin Flanagan called “The Hazards of Duke,” about Karen Owen, a Duke student who produced a PowerPoint thesis detailing her promiscuous sexual activity with 13 of the university’s athletes. The allusion to the popular ’80s television series is more than incidental. The Dukes of Hazzard made light comedy out of a pair of moonshiners, while Karen Owen’s story involves blackout drinking that results in anonymous and sometimes painful sex. The subject of brutal sex was reprised in the same issue of The Atlantic in an article on Internet porn called “Hard Core” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. In the piece, Vargas-Cooper describes a one-night-stand of her own that didn’t go well: “…in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, ‘Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.’” Needless to say, the old adage “if it’s been done, it’s been said, and if it’s been said, it’s been done” still holds true. There are parts of The Canterbury Tales that will still shock if you read Chaucer carefully enough, to say nothing of Rabelais, the Marquis de Sade, Montaigne (who was quite candid on the subject of sexual dysfunction), Pauline Réage (aka Anne Desclos) and Pasolini (whose Salo is the ne plus ultra of boundary-breaking). But Vargas-Cooper points out that, in the past, acquiring graphic depictions of violent sexuality often involved a quest. At the least, you had to sneak into the house with your VHS cassette and succeed in not being discovered watching it on TV. But the advent of the Internet has made the most forbidden subject matter (coprophilia, water sports, asphyxiation, even necrophilia) available at the click of a mouse. Was the subject of the first article (the increasing casualness of rough sex) in some way the result of the phenomenon (the increasing presence of sex online) broached in the second article? Does the Internet give license to and even validate some of our more more aggressive urges, or were they always just well kept secrets? Did the horse precede the cart, or vice versa? Is the medium ultimately the message?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Starless, Starless Night

Even the lowliest, most disreputable scumbag thinks he or she is the center of the universe. At least they hold on to that hope. Even the dying patient lives for some tomorrow in which magically, within their shrinking finitude, they will arise like a genie from the miasma of their toxicity. This is the curious thing about the human species. The heresy perpetrated by Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler by using science to show that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe was all the more galling because of the insult to “dark matter,” or whatever it is that’s the building block of the thing called ego. We have tyrants and authoritarian personalities that hold onto power with an almost admirable tenacity and ability to obfuscate. Such is the case of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the recent machinations by which Hosni Mubarak refused to relinquish his increasingly tenuous hold on power. But these despots are only the tip of the iceberg. They are only exaggerated examples of the anthropocentric demon that lies within the soul of all creatures that are blessed or cursed with the human attribute we call consciousness. There is anecdotal material about great men and women of compassion, like Gandhi and Mother Theresa, to support the notion that they were no more freed from the bonds of the self than the destitute and homeless they championed. These unfortunates occupy an ever-shrinking universe in which their own bodily needs or addictions (watching methadone addicts staggering away from a local clinic and hollering to each other with little regard for the pedestrians around them is a good primer in a perverse brand of egocentricity) form the center. And what about the recent revelations about the expansion of the universe that predict that man will one day awaken in a starless sky, the light from distant stars no longer able to reach him?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Death of a Salesman

Salesmen love you when they are selling. It is hard to differentiate the mark from the love object, and sometimes the person to whom a pitch being made inspires a passion that is almost romantic. But we are all salesmen, since we all want something and are usually willing to sell part of our selves to get it. In the most basic example, a person who wants the love of another has to sell him or herself to get it. Seduction is a pitch in which both mental and physical credentials are presented for evaluation to the potential buyer. Naturally, there is a degree of reciprocity. A male, in the classical formulation, pursues a woman, but once he has succeeded in getting her attention, he must in turn be won over if the knot is to be tied. There is a famous scene in The Man With Two Brains where a beautiful prostitute opens her mouth and starts rendering Gene Chandler’s "Duke of Earl" at an ear-shattering pitch. While the knight may wear his shining armor to make his conquest, the princess he is after will have to be beautiful and not a bitch to clinch the deal. The love of a mother for her child is always looked at as a bond in which there are no quid pro quos or caveat emptors; it’s defined as unconditional love. But even the mother-child relationship partakes of salesmanship. If the mother is in fact devoted to her child, she wins the kind of adoration that James Cagney demonstrated in the famous prison mess hall scene from White Heat, in which Cagney goes berserk when he hears of his mother’s death. On the other hand, the character of Precious in the movie based on the Sapphire novel Push has an abusive mother who hasn’t fulfilled her part of the bargain, and in the end only earns her child’s scorn.

Friday, February 11, 2011

World Without End. Amen

In a panel at The Philoctetes Center with the ambitious title “The Nature of Reality,” Deepak Chopra said that consciousness, at least the kind he was talking about, was not the product of evolution. What Chopra was referring to was a cosmic consciousness that might be tantamount to the G word. Biologists generally regard consciousness as the product of an evolution that went hand in hand with the advent of prehensile, tool-making creatures and the development of the cerebral cortex, that element of the so-called upper brain responsible for reasoning and intuition (depending on which side—right or left—we are talking about). “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.” Such were Rod Serling’s words of introduction to his classic weekly series. But isn’t there enough mystery in knowable things, in the elementary particles of matter (like the Higgs boson)the coveted treasure that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider are seeking to find as they reduplicate the conditions of the Big Bang? Why can’t we enjoy consciousness for what it is? A product of puny man, helpless and lost within a “world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21). 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Spider-Man: The Stage Goes Dark

Shouldn’t Icarus and Hubris find their way into the title of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? The history of the production is literally the Icarus myth, with injuries occurring because actors have flown too high. The show has also had its esthetic wings melted, at least by Ben Brantley of the Times, who made the unusual decision to review the play before it had officially opened (“Good vs. Evil, Hanging By a Thread,” NYT, 2/7/11). Other mainstream reviewers have chimed in with almost uniformly negative write-ups. Positive remarks about the show by conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, who undoubtedly supports the Republican initiative to cut the projected 1.6 trillion dollar deficit by refusing to renew the NEA’s 140 million dollar budget, will likely add fuel to the culture war that has been brewing between the cosmopolitan establishment and flyover country. Taymor actually occupies a unique position in this conflict in that she’s an avant-gardist whose work (especially The Lion King) has been commercially successful. Spider-Man had or has everything going for it, from a major theatrical imagination to music by one of the most charismatic rock stars of all time (Bono), who also happens to be one of the producers. So beyond the striving for greatness evidenced by the show’s record-breaking $65 million budget and constantly delayed opening, what went wrong?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Daily Planet

The announcement that AOL has acquired The Huffington Post falls on the heels of the merger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. So a new formula is emerging. Take a moribund media enterprise (AOL, Newsweek) and unite forces with a mordant one and you have … what? In chemistry by definition it's well nigh impossible to create compounds with inert substances, so presumably neither AOL nor Newsweek are deemed to be inert, though previously both were looked at as dying businesses whose major markets were a far cry from the 25-35 demographic most advertisers crave. A good part of AOL’s business is still the dial-up crowd of assisted livers, and Newsweek is most likely found in the reception area of gerontology offices. However, to invoke another rule of science, if two negatives make a positive, what about a negative and a faint glimmer of hope? Particularly in the case of the AOL and Huffington Post molecule, there is lots of hope. Right now print journalism is in the dementia stage which precedes the death rattle, and many of those who have foresworn their Times subscriptions have been left to fend for themselves in the anarchy of the blogosphere, where subjective perceptions by unlicensed mental health practitioners define the quality of news analysis. Something had to give, both in terms of the product produced and who was producing it. When the dust settles, the grand old newspapers of the past are bound to be replaced by a new journalism with its own technologies and mythologies. Perhaps these two mergers are harbingers of change.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Heat

The Big Heat, which was recently revived as part of the Fritz Lang series at Film Forum, is the prototypic film noir, almost an essay in the genre, using actors—Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame—whose personas perfectly embody the Pulcinellas and Harlequins of this sour commedia dell’arte. The self-consciousness of the form, and the way in which it footnotes its own provenance and lays the path for posterity, with cops and villains out of central casting, is key to understanding the film’s conviction. Quentin Tarantino is a master of this cinematic music in the meta film noirs he creates in movies like Pulp Fiction, which by the way have no monopoly on either humor or grotesquery, as evidenced in Lang’s effort. A B-girl named Lucy Chapman (Deborah Green) is burned with cigarettes, tortured and murdered. Gloria Grahame’s character Debby Marsh has half of her face burned off and gets her vengeance by reciprocating the favor on her thug lover Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). But there is no shortage of one-liners, sometimes of an uproarious nature, amidst the bleak landscape. Walking into Glenn Ford’s hotel room, Grahame comments, “Say, I like this, early nothing,” and says that her scar-face is “not so bad…it’s only on one side” and that now she can look at the world “sideways.” Grahame actually acts as the soothsayer, the drunken Tiresias of the film, popping out with aphorisms while defying gravitas. Of course the greatest influence on Fritz Lang’s work in The Big Heat is Lang himself. You don’t have the shadows of M; in fact, the film, and in particular a timeless scene in a nightclub called The Retreat where mobsters hang out, is full of light. But it’s a glaring light, the cosmopolitan light of Metropolis, which is recalled in one character's soliloquy, set against an iconic cityscape of towering skyscrapers that juxtapose cozy images of corruption with the juggernaut of impersonality.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Man Who Read Pauline Kael's Review of 'Last Tango in Paris' Too Much

In retrospect, it was not so much Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, with its famed stick of butter, that left such an impact on viewers, as it was the millenarian nature of Pauline Kael’s review, which compared the film to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (Pauline Kael, The Current Cinema, The New Yorker, October 28, 1972). The Journal of Irreproducible Results recounts the case of John R., a 49-year-old professor of film at CUNY who suffers from a case of near total amnesia in which he only remembers paragraphs of the famous New Yorker review (“The Man Who Read Pauline Kael’s Review of Last Tango in Paris Too Much,” The Journal of Irreproducible Results, Volume 45, No 1). On Friday the Times reported the death of Maria Schneider (“Maria Schneider, Actress in ‘Last Tango,’ Dies at 58,” NYT, 2/4/11). The coquettish actress achieved a notoriety she didn’t entirely want for the scenes with Marlon Brando that earned the film an X rating. “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol,” she said in a Daily Mail story from 2007, which the Times obit quoted. “I wanted to be recognized as an actress, and the whole scandal and the aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.” Schneider was 19 when she made the film, but the Times ran a picture of her from 2003, when she was 50. The rendering is quite shocking, a little like The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s not just the cruelty of age but the change in persona that’s so dramatic. The Times describes the character that Schneider was chosen to play as “free-spirited” and “mysterious.” But the rendering that accompanies the story of her demise looks like a mug shot. It's the face of a careworn, bedraggled and tired creature who looks like she was struck down by life before she'd ever a chance to comprehend what was happening to her.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Monsieur Butterfly

There is an incredibly touching section in Carl Zimmer’s recent Times piece about a 1945 paper on butterflies by Nabokov (“Nonfiction: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated,” NYT, 1/25/11). “When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities,” Zimmer writes, “the 8-year-old Nabokov brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift.” Such was his passion for lepidoptery that Nabokov undertook the 1945 paper about the migratory patterns and evolution of Polyommatus blues. Though largely discountenanced by the scientific community in his time, Zimmer remarks, “Last week in The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.” Most importantly, in order to pursue his research Nabokov “developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia.” One can’t help but take note of Nabokov’s methodology in the light of the triage he performed in Lolita. Zimmer points out that Nabokov was “the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard,” and the still shocking pedophilia of Lolita has always been counterbalanced by the picture of the Russian émigré and exile—the gentle scholar whose real themes had nothing to do with perversion. But Nabokov was ultimately as interested in the genitals of people as he was of his beloved butterflies. Flaubert’s famous line, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, applies to Nabokov’s most infamous character, the aging paraphiliac Humbert Humbert. Nabokov was not an eccentric who happened to write one book with an incidentally sexual theme. He was a dirty old man, in love with the pupa, the pudenda and lost youth, and his writing is all the greater for it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lives of Our Leaders: War Games

The prisoner’s dilemma, devised by scientists at the RAND Corporation in the ’50s, and the trolley problem, articulated by the English philosopher Philippa Foot (who also happened to be the grand daughter of Grover Cleveland), are both problems of philosophy frequently used in game theory, a branch of mathematics that attempts to apply abstract thought to moral dilemmas. So take Iraq, with its Sunnis and its Shiites and its ever-dwindling Christian population: let’s say you invent a game called Iraq War. The object of the game is to topple a ruthless tyrant (Saddam Hussein) whose fascist inclinations find their roots in a branch of pan-Arabism that bears some similarity to India’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the trolley problem, one person is sacrificed to save a larger group. Transposing the problem to Iraq, the challenge becomes that in order to save the country’s Shiite majority, a number of Sunnis will have to be killed. In the prisoner’s dilemma, you have two prisoners that are presented with a variety of scenarios in which they either remain silent or rat each other out. As with the prisoner’s dilemma, the two elements in society vying for power, the Sunni and Shiites, can both rat on each other or make mixed choices in which one rats and one doesn’t. If the Shiites play ball with the invading forces, the Sunnis will be extinguished. If the Sunnis play ball with the invading forces, the Shiites may again find themselves on the wrong end of the stick. If both refuse to play ball with the invading forces there may be a state of peace (the equivalent of the simplest possible outcome in the original prisoner’s dilemma). If both “defect,” to use the original nomenclature of the problem, giving up the goods on each other, then there will be some strife, but not nearly as much as there would have been for any one party if one had talked while the other hadn’t. Would that there were a game called Iraq War, which, while not winnable, might still provide some rational explanations. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

There is an obvious explanation for the fact that upstate New York towns like Marathon, Rome and Ithaca have mythic names. Immigrants from Italy and the Peloponnesus settled them. But it can be startling to drive along I-81 or I-90 and spot signs for Rome or Marathon. For a moment, one is totally taken aback. Marathon, the legendary city after which our most famous footrace is named, conjures the image of classical or neo-classical Palladian architecture, while the surrounding landscape of split-level houses, fast food joints and discount shopping behemoths like Sam’s Club belies such hallowed associations. Seeing the sign for Rome, one thinks of the Colosseum, of Rosssano Brazzi in Three Coins in the Fountain or of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with its triage of post war aristocracy and culture. Ithaca of course is closest to the classical associations conjured by its name, being the home of Cornell University. Wandering the campus, the history of knowledge that it conjures is readily perceptible in the legends on the varying buildings. Cornell is of course one of the great seats of learning in the West, and the fact that its home is in Ithaca represents more of a geopolitical change than any disparity between it and the values the ancient Greeks held, in particular the precept mens sana in corpore sano, a saying that graces the Kongsbakken videregående skole in Tromsø, Norway.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Virgil in the Wetlands

Next time you pass the sign for the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, off Jog Road in Delray Beach, Florida, seek out Israel “Izzy” Zuckerman, a former accountant who has a PhD in differential algebra from Rutgers. He will be your Virgil, taking you through an inferno turned paradise, where purified waste is turned into a wildlife refuge. He will show you the island where the Great Blue Herons majestically mate and build their nests. Some of these herons even live double lives, as attested by the fact that one was sighted carrying sticks to a second nest. Israel, who carries binoculars and a well-worn glossary of birds in the back pocket of his blue shorts, will tell you that egrets are herons and that herons fly with their necks out. The ibis, a bird with storied associations in ancient Egyptian lore, is not a heron, and flies with its neck tucked in. At Wakodahatchee, Israel will also introduce you to the Roseate Spoonbill and the Blue-winged Teal. You will see a Night Heron sleeping, and walking back to your car you will have to wait for Peahens, who march lackadaisically through the parking lot, fearlessly blocking traffic as they lumber across the road. Israel hails from the Plainview New Jersey area, which is where he first became interested in bird watching. You will realize as you leave and merge back into traffic lanes filled with Snowbirds, that you are unlikely to ever see Israel again, unless, of course, you return to Wakodahatchee.