Friday, April 29, 2011

Kafka at GTMO

“(H)e realized at once that he shouldn’t have spoken out loud and that by doing so he had, in a sense, acknowledge the stranger’s right to oversee his actions.” This quote from The Trial epitomizes the catch-22 that counsel for GTMO detainees now find themselves in with respect to WikiLeaks documents. “Anyone surfing the Internet this week is free to read leaked documents about the prisoners held by the American military at Guantánamo…. Except, that is, for the lawyers who represent the prisoners,” reads Scott Shane’s front-page Times piece (“Detainees’ Lawyers Can’t Click on Leaked Documents,” NYT, 4/26/11). Kafka couldn’t have written a better line in his famed novel, in which The Law itself is both a pervasive, unseen force and the main element of the parable “Before the Law,” a significant element of the novel. But before we jump up and down with self-congratulatory outrage at the absurdities of “the system,” we might consider another point raised in the penultimate graph of the Times piece, which lays out the problems that the Justice Department is faced with. Summarizing the thinking of Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple, Shane notes, “The law is clear: only a document that is properly declassified loses its protections. And if the government ruled that classified documents disclosed to the public were automatically declassified, that would simply create a more powerful incentive for disgruntled employees to leak.” Even Kafka might have thrown up hand hands in the face of this anti-parable.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


“We’re talking about a country whose economy is the size of Pittsburgh’s,” Times reporter David Sanger quotes an official, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” as saying about Syria (“U.S. Faces a Challenge in Trying to Punish Syria,” NYT, 4/26/11). “There are things you can do to amp up the volume,” the official goes on to say about the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions, “but the financial impact is slim.” Sanger compares the difficulty of U.S. relations with Syria to similar impasses with North Korea and Myanmar. Where do sanctions work? What wealthy societies have succumbed to sanctions in order to preserve their hegemony? Human rights abuses in China have intermittently been addressed in summit conferences, but who is going to relinquish market share to make a statement against an economic giant? If we embargo China’s microprocessors, they’ll always find someone else willing to buy them. So you don’t attack the strong, since there’s no real way to make them weak, and you can’t threaten the weak, since the result is nil. Our embargo of Cuba has gone on for decades and has merely made a poor country poorer. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. All the resistance in the world is like a weight pulling a muscle taut. So what to do? We end up as children back in the playground, frightened of the big kids and powerless to do anything to the little squirts, who realize that their power lies in their weakness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Midday Quiz Show on Barbershop Flatscreen

Here are some questions posed to contestants on a midday television quiz show: What is the name of the Greek runner who ran the first marathon? What is the show that the man who blackmailed David Letterman worked for before he worked for David Letterman, and what company was it owned by? What is the name of the song that has the line “here is my handle/here is my spout?” What animal has an exoskeleton identified with chitin? What famous actor published a book called My Life? Quiz shows are not what they were back in the days of payola, when a famed Columbia academic named Charles Van Doren appeared on a show called Twenty One (and later confessed to the U.S. Congress that he had been given the answers ahead of time) and masters of ceremonies for other shows on both radio and TV were iconic figures like Eddie Cantor and Jack Paar. The top questions today are likely to be rewarded not with $64,000 (as in the old $64,000 Question) but with $1,000,000, and the stage set for the above-mentioned midday show has a futuristic cast that makes it hard to tell if the cheering audience is a digital creation or real. There is an almost mawkish familiarity between the host, a would-be Simon Cowell who skates on the thin ice between news anchoring and method acting, and his guests, who seem to be chosen for their lack of distinction in anything. There aren’t too many Columbia classics scholars in the bullpen for this 15 minutes of fame. It’s hard to imagine where the contestants for today’s shows come from. The two who appear on this show seem clueless and filled with that hopeless eagerness that compels them to give the old college try and constantly embrace the host. A heavyset platinum blond describes herself as a PhD candidate and walks away with a pittance after getting practically nothing right. The rules of the show are simple. You can take your winnings at any time or you can risk almost everything by going for increasingly bigger stakes. At one point a young man who precedes the blond is nine questions away from the million-dollar question, which may not seem like much unless you don’t know much about anything. 

Monday, April 25, 2011


According to a recent Times obit, Evelyn Einstein, the granddaughter of Albert Einstein who purportedly was adopted by Einstein’s son Hans Albert and his wife Frieda, “had been told as a child that she was actually the child of Albert Einstein and a ballet dancer…” (“Evelyn Einstein Dies at 70; Shaped by a Link to Fame,” NYT, 4/18/11). Einstein had a strange life according to the Times obit. She was fluent in many tongues. She was a protestor against HUAC, and studied at Berkeley. Despite “a master’s in medieval literature…she worked as a dogcatcher, a cult deprogrammer and a police officer.” Some women complain about being sex objects. Einstein’s problem seemed to be her name, which one would assume had an aphrodisiac effect on certain scientists and intellectuals. “Ms. Einstein,” the Times reported, “was married for 13 years to Grover Krantz, an anthropology professor at Washington State University, who became known for trying to prove the existence of Bigfoot.” Perhaps her most noteworthy act in a life that, according to the Times, even included “a period of homelessness,” was research that led to the unearthing of a trove of Einstein’s correspondences concerning his relationships with women. Einstein was revealed in some of these as being far from the quirky and ethereal genius with messed-up hair. “You will expect no affection from me,” the Times quoted one letter as saying, “You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.” Energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light was Einstein’s great equation, but Evelyn, like her grandfather, seemed to have trouble finding a unified theory.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Why is Easter coming so exceptionally late this year? (Last year Easter was on April 4th, this year it’s the 24th. In 2012, it will be April 8th; in 2013, March 31st; and in 2014, it will go back to April 20th.) Jason DeRusha of WCCO-TV provided an explanation. "The simple answer about when Easter happens is that it’s always the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.... The process dates to the fourth century, when people around the world were celebrating the rebirth of Christ on different dates. The Council of Nicea wanted to get everyone in line. They set an official ecclesiastical equinox on March 21. Then they looked for the first full moon. But the full moon can fall on two different dates, depending on where you live. So in 1583, Christoph Clavius came up with a calculation to standardize the Paschal Full moon. Easter falls on the next Sunday." But what is even more fascinating is the way religions reflect archetypal yearnings that follow a seasonal, diurnal or biological cycle. Passover, the date of which is always 15 days after Rosh Chodesh (the full moon) in the month of Nissan, which also came later than usual this year on the Gregorian calendar, celebrates freedom from bondage, while Easter represents resurrection (Davinci’s "Last Supper" may actually depict a seder). Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism all partake of festivities that reflect the cycles of birth and death. In the winter months, when the earth is further from the sun, gestation takes place, but later, when the cycle changes, the days grow longer and we begin to bask in the warmth of the sun’s radiation, there is rebirth. Like the confused and weary lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are given a chance to live again.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Painful Case

Wednesday's Times front-page story, “Ohio CountyLosing Its Young to Painkillers’ Grip,” illustrates a sad and strangely futuristic trend through the description of a single, painful case. The first thing that grabs you about the piece is the arresting headline. Alcohol and drugs are not uncommon news items, but it’s less common to talk about painkillers. Soma was the fictional drug that helped people flee a harsh reality in Brave New World (1932). But the very real OxyContin has become all the rage in Portsmouth, in Ohio’s Scioto County, where it’s taken not for the physical pain for which it’s normally prescribed but apparently to cure the pain of living. The Times piece tells the story of Nina Mannering: “In January 2010, Ms. Mannering was killed less than a mile from her parents’ house. A man broke into the house where she was staying with a 65-year-old veteran who had access to prescriptions and shot them both, looking for pills, the police said. She was 29. Her daughter, who was 8 at the time, watched.” The Times describes the Mannerings as occupying a deceptively “pretty hollow” where “11 houses on their country road were dealing the drug (including a woman in her 70s called Granny)....” Nina’s brother Chad eventually became an addict and the parents ultimately exhausted their savings “on legal fees and rehab programs.” The way Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise describes the story is very different from your ordinary shoot ‘em up, crack and cocaine tale. “Judy Mannering,” she writes, “discovered her daughter’s body at dusk, bathed in the light of a flickering, soundless television.” This telling of Nina Mannering’s demise reads less like a murder scene than like an account of someone who became overly sedated at a funeral.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Facts Among the Flowers

“Facts Amongst the Flowers” is the title of Mary Beard’s review of Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s The Emperor Elagabalus (TLS, 2/25/11). The illustration for the piece is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting “Roses of Heliogabalus” from 1888. In it, Alma-Tadema depicts the perversity of the little-known emperor as he watches guests at a lavish banquet suffocate from the rose pedals he’s lavished on them. The reproduction is an uncharacteristically dramatic graphic element in the otherwise staid photo editing of the TLS. But it’s fitting for the review of a book about a creature of excess whose deeds, while not coming under the purview of First Century historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, still, according to Beard, give one pause for thought. “Did he really serve 600 ostrich brains all in one meal?” writes Beard, “Or raise a laugh by feeding his less distinguished guests with wooden models of the food that was being eaten at high table? (At least it would have been better than dying under the flower pedals.) Also implausible are many of his reported political and religious schemes, from his putative establishment of a senate for women to his mass campaign of child sacrifice. By comparison with all this, Nero’s murder of his mother and Caligula’s threats to make his favorite horse a consul hardly raise an eyebrow.” Beard points out that while Elagabalus makes a cameo appearance in The Pirates of Penzance, invoking the lyric, “I quote in elegiacs the crimes of Heliogabalus,” he’s otherwise featured in the Augustan History, one of the prime repositories for information on “The third century AD, with its baffling succession of short-lived emperors, repeated coups and mutinies….” Whether apocryphal or not, what’s most astonishing about Elagabalus’s crimes is that they were committed by the time he was 18, at which time he was purportedly “murdered in a palace coup, instigated by his grandmother and the Praetorian Guard….”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Libidorometer

The only drawback of the libidorometer is that it must be inserted carefully. There are applications that allow for oral insertion, but these instruments, which resemble the human penis, are beyond the budget of the average consumer. In addition, due to their construction, these versions of the libidorometer are not convenient for use while in public (unless you are attending Carnival in Rio). Needless to say, the libidorometer has become an increasingly essential appliance for most Americans. Decoding the human genome has been a laborious process that's produced tremendous advances, but it is also tedious. The libidorometer was developed by leaders in genome research as a diversion during the long years in the lab. Don’t jump to the immediate comparisons with Viagra, which was discovered when a drug designed to treat sufferers of angina produced uncalled-for erections. It is true, however, that the libidorometer was created by technicians who realized that an instrument used in gene marking seemed to predict their disposition for sexual engagement. Soon, research institutes across the country, from The Rockefeller University in New York to Yale, Stanford and Harvard, were filled with technicians whose advances in science were directly proportional to their advances on each other. During coffee breaks, researchers looking for cures for a host of maladies would rush to the men’s or women’s room to insert their newly acquired libidorometers into their anuses. Emerging from the bathroom, many would sport huge smiles as they faced the prospect of a hard day’s work knowing that unforeseen pleasures awaited them as a reward for the assiduity with which they pursued their research.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Polymathic Perversity

“War and Peace” is the title TLS editors gave to George Steiner’s review of Pierre Bouretz’s D’Un Ton Guerrier en Philosophie (TLS, 3/25/11). The title is prescient, since the critic in question has never been a stranger to hyperbole. Steiner opens his review, which deals with how “Derridean, Foucaldian and Lacanian doctrines exercised a defining spell on the teaching of the humanities…” by arguing that “academic quarrels…far outweigh the factitious mummeries of diplomacy.” Steiner has a talent for obfuscating what is merely obtuse while at the same time asserting that what goes on in the stacks of a library is equivalent to the Trojan War or to the Manhattan Project for that matter. The sententious prose and the way he apotheosizes intellectual struggles that few on earth could care less about, or understand, is actually refreshing and becomes a kind of meaning-making in and of itself. Steiner is an undeniably brilliant man and a vestige of a form of polymathic learning that is becoming ever harder to locate in our culture of specialization. And there is one piece of great brilliance in his review. Trying to account for the attraction of deconstruction, Steiner says, “Deconstruction and post-structuralism seemed to validate resort to the theoretical, to an idiom comparable to that of the sciences… ‘String theory/French theory’: the labels, however irreconcilable from any serious point of view, chime. Had Levi-Strauss not donned a white coat and designated his rooms a laboratoire?” Just when exasperation at Steiner’s millenarian prose is about to set in, he produces a gem which hits the nail right on the head in dealing with the aspiration of poets, psychoanalysts and explicateurs de texte to produce the intellectual version of the Salk vaccine.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Diasopric Dining XXIV: Enemy of a Farmer

Waiting in line to get into a fashionable disco makes complete sense since the payoff is usually drugs and sex. But waiting in line for bacon, sausages, waffles and pancakes on a cold—or for that matter perfectly lovely—Sunday morning represents a human aspiration as irrational as dying in an attempt to climb Mount Everest. Brunch is a totally hopeless meal for which long lines of salivating dolts wait like sheep being led to slaughter to have their appetites murdered, rendering them utterly incapable of having the big Sunday meal of Chinese food that is scripturally ordained in the Old Testament. Nowhere is this crack-head mentality more in evidence than at Friend of a Farmer, an establishment on Irving Place in Manhattan. Near-riot conditions prevail in the morning hours when crowds of peons, lured by the greasy bouquet produced by fried nitrates, dutifully line up to satiate their archaic drive for defunct Americana. Indeed, what goes on at Friend of a Farmer and similar establishments should be deemed unconstitutional and prohibited under federal statute. In the meantime, there are rehabs and recovery programs for those who can’t wean themselves from this insidious addiction. The crash from a brunch high takes the form of an immobilizing lethargy, caused by the huge lump of carbohydrates that is beached like a dying whale in the large intestine of the sufferer, who inevitably falls into a  deep sleep, followed by a massive headache and feelings of disorientation and existential malaise.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bergman, Time and Einstein

There is no doubt that space is warped, that Shakespeare got most of his ideas from Ingmar Bergman, and that Bergman is the far greater artist, with Fanny and Alexander being one of the seminal works of any genre in the history of artistic production or thought. What more can be said about the creator of Winter Lights (besides the God thing, arguably the best essay on men’s true feelings about women’s menses), Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, and Scenes From a Marriage? Lesser works like Autumn Sonata or The Seventh Seal (which was the subject of a famous Woody Allen parody) are still more profound than most Shakespeare plays. The incest scene in Through a Glass Darkly makes Lear look paltry. Rembrandt’s self-portrait and Homer’s Odysseus pale in comparison to the character portrayed by the great Gunnar Bjornstrand. Oedipus and Gloucester can walk around with their eyeballs plucked out, but it doesn’t compare to the kind of suffering and exorcism prefigured in the astonishing montage at the beginning of Persona. Is there anything in Dante’s Inferno that compares with Shame, in which the filmmaker presents us with corpses floating in his own vision of the river Styx? The Remembrance of Things Past is nice when it comes to memory, but can it really compare to Wild Strawberries, where Bergman really hits the nail of regret on the head? The worst that can be said about Smiles from a Summer Night was that A Little Night Music was based on it. Still, not bad for an early effort. Let’s not forget The Passion of Anna and Cries and Whispers, with its unforgettable equating of the color red to the emotions of its dying character. Every artist has something to learn from the master. One wonders if Gaspar Noe saw The Virgin Spring before filming the famous rape scene in Irreversible.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Autumn of the Autocrat

What does the deposed strongman say to the upstart revolutionary? “My electrodes, my electrodes, my kingdom for a pair of electrodes to attach to your testicles.” Laurent Gbagbo is the latest of the recent crop of despots whose reigns have been cut short by popular unrest, foreign intervention, or both. Hopefully Qaddafi will follow. Robert Mugabe remains steadfast, as does Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and the entire Kim Jong-il Jung dynasty, whose plans for succession are a constant source of curiosity among western intelligence services. Idi Amin Dada and Papa Doc Duvalier were their forebears, along with Romania’s Ceauşescu and, long before him, Stalin, Hitler and Caligula. Gbagbo, it turns out, was a darling of the American right, with Glenn Beck, Pat Robertson and Republican James M. Inhofe, who belongs to both the powerful Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, among his fans (“A Strongman Found Support in Prominent U.S. Conservatives,” NYT, 4/12/11). The Times commented that Inoufe “visited Ivory Coast nine times and knew Mr. Gbagbo and his wife Simone.” Gbagbo, according to the Times, participated in the National Prayer Breakfast, which is run by the Fellowship, “a secretive evangelical Christian organization.” Gbagbo was apparently preferred over his rival Alassane Ouattara, who happens to be a Muslim. Still, the picture of Laurent and Simone that graced the front page of the Times on Tuesday was almost touching. One moment they lived in a luxurious villa, defying election results and international delegations, seemingly implacable in their resolve to refute the forces of progress; the next they were heavily guarded in a hotel room. Aristotle defined tragedy as the fall of a once great man. There is no doubt Gbagbo has fallen. But with genocidal murder and the repression of a population at the top of his resume, one would need a broader definition than Aristotle’s to understand the tragic path of destruction sown by Gbagbo and his ilk.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The House of Blue Leaves

“Do you know what the greatest talent in the world is? To be an audience,” says Billy Einhorn (Thomas Sadoski), the old-school Hollywood producer in John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, now in revival at the Walter Kerr Theater. “Anybody can create,” he goes on, “but to be an audience....” Actually, Guare makes it the audience’s job to make sense out of his tableau of gargoyles, from the mentally ill Bananas (Edie Falco), who professes “I don’t mind not feeling as long as I can be in a place I remember feeling,” to Artie Shaughnessy, who takes care of the animals in the Central Park Zoo when he’s not writing mediocre show tunes, to Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) the downstairs neighbor who sleeps with Artie but refuses to cook for him until they are married. Add to this a nun who proclaims, “Don’t bother about us. We’re nothing. We’ve just given our lives up praying for you,” an AWOL army soldier, and a deaf actress who gets blown up by a bomb intended for Pope Paul VI. Perhaps when the play first premiered in 1966, the mere presence of these deformed creatures, all paradigms of romantic aspiration gone awry, rang a bell with an audience who enjoyed the pleasure of anarchy. After all, The House of Blue Leaves premiered in the middle of the Viet Nam era, when the schizophrenic relationship between individual values and institutional morality, or immorality, was best expressed by Yeats’s oft quoted lines “the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” But today the bar is higher. We have become so inured to cynicism, particularly in regard to the way individual destinies are shaped by history, that the absurdity of Guare’s characters seems both one-dimensional and predictable. You are more likely to be disturbed and entertained by the standup comedy on a typical episode of Saturday Night Live than you would by the so-called drama going on at the Walter Kerr. To put this more succinctly, Guare was in the gargoyle manufacturing business when he wrote Leaves. Now that gargoyle manufacturing has been outsourced to India, the once unusual images have become commonplace, overused, and in many cases outdated.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Le Quattro Volte

One thing that can be said about Michelangelo Frammartino’s highly touted Le Quattro Volte, currently playing at Film Forum, is that it probably didn’t require a casting director. (There are no stars or roles that seem to need interpretation by a professional actor.) Another thing that can be said about the film is that it is probably as far removed from the sophisticated repartee of a classic comedy like The Philadelphia Story as any film in the history of cinema. (There is no dialogue.) If we are talking about Italian cinema, this film has nothing to do with politics like The Conformist, history like The Leopard or the sexuality like Salo. One reaction to Le Quattro Volte might be the response Jackson Pollack paintings used to elicit amongst unsophisticated audiences, to wit, “I can do that.” In this case the “that” would be employing time-lapse photography in a natural setting to record the behavior of a herd of goats or watching wood being turned into coal, two of the central actions of the movie. What then is the difference between Le Quattro Volte and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? The answer might be that such programming is more aestheticized, while the whole point of Le Quattro Volte seems to be to do for the basics of life and death what Lars von Trier did in the Dogma 95 movement’s approach to dramatic cinema, which was to remove artificiality of any sort. In this case, it involves filming the natural in the most natural way possible. But then there are curious little touches such as the anarchic behavior of the animals when their caretaker dies. It is in moments like this that Le Quattro Volte represents a surprising and even disconcerting shift from our preconceptions about how reality can be represented on screen.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Letter from the Colonel

The Times International Page ran a small story about Qaddafi writing a second personal note to Obama “urging him to stop NATO’s airstrikes” (“Qaddafi Writes to Obama, Urging End to Airstrikes,” NYT, 4/7/11). Times reporters David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim don’t specify whether the letter was an e- or s-mail, but they do describe the Libyan leader as resorting to outright flattery to get what he wants. “You will always remain our son whatever happened,” Qaddafi wrote. “We Endeavor and hope that you will gain victory in the new election campaigne.” As if Barack Obama were so weak willed and needy that he would buy this obvious bullshit! Addressing Obama as “Mr. Our dear son, Excellency, Baraka Hussein Abu Oumama,” Qaddafi resorts to a bit of noblesse oblige, conferring a title on his newly appointed vassal. And then he goes the Polonius route, only it’s not “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” but “As you know too well democracy and building of civil society cannot be achieved by means of missiles and aircraft, or by backing armed members of Al-Qaeda in Benghazi.” When you think about it, it’s kind of sweet of Qaddafi to buddy up to Obama and treat him like the Libyan version of a good ole boy, but Qaddafi’s point about the fireworks is debatable. Firstly, Qaddafi forgets the words of H. Rap Brown, who prophetically said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Secondly, since Qaddafi himself has extensive experience as a tyrant, he should know that missiles and aircraft are not mutually exclusive of civil society. The missiles and aircraft are like the appetizer at a state dinner. First you have your shrimp cocktail (the missiles and aircraft), then you get your steak, pheasant or whatever main dish is tantamount to the building of civil society.      

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sacred Syntax

Admittedly there is a lot wrong in the world. The Republicans are doing everything they can to shut down the federal government while blaming the Democrats for their intractability (“Budget Stances Harden as Deadline Nears for Shutdown,” NYT, 4/5/11). Qaddafi is hard to eradicate and the ragtag Libyan rebels lack cohesion or identity. Efforts to cool the defective Fukushima Daiichi reactor threaten to sow the seeds of further problems (“U.S. Sees Array of New Threats at Japan’s Nuclear Plant,” NYT, 4/5/11). Yemen is a mess, the Sudan is worse and Somalia is a breeding ground for pirates. But in a front-page story in Wednesday’s Times (“Ivory Coast Leader Swayed by Force as He Considers Exit,” NYT, 4/6/11), writers Adam Nossiter and Scott Sayare produced a first paragraph that reads thus: “Holed up in a bunkers under his residence, Ivory Coast’s strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, negotiated the terms of his potential surrender on Tuesday, as opposition forces closed in, his generals called on their forces to lay down their arms and French and United Nations negotiators demanded that he officially renounce control of his country.” Here we have a case of journalistic double indemnity: an overly long sentence that also happens to be a run-on. It’s actually refreshing to find such a blunder in the paper of record (a blunder that could easily have been corrected by the paper’s copy editors had they simply killed the comma after “Tuesday,” replacing it with a period and capitalizing “as.” Are we to assume that editors at the Times have been so overwhelmed by the deteriorating condition of our planet, an old battered warship now wobbling perilously through the solar system, that they have forgotten the basics of grammar? In a more activist society, there might have been protests against the Times similar to those in Kandahar against the burning of the Koran by a preacher in Florida, but the error produced no such outrage amongst grammatical fundamentalists.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Kingdom of God

“No man is an island” is a line written by the famous metaphysical poet John Donne, but it is a disputable premise. In effect, every man is an island whose existence is very much like that of England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all countries created on large islands bounded by one or another body of salty water. After the euphoria of gestation in the amniotic sac, we are all born into a state of isolation, which is the condition in which we die. We may be grieved and missed, but no one can die with us. If someone is upset enough about our deaths, they might die (you’ve heard the stories about couples who die within hours of each other). They might even commit suicide, but there is no known method by which one human being can inhabit or occupy the insides of another. Technology faces no such limitations. Hard drives are replaced and technicians routinely enter the intelligences of computers to perform even the most mundane tasks. But despite the advent of fMRIs, which measure brain function, no one is able to enter another consciousness, the filter through which each of us perceives the world. If you think about this condition, it’s rather disconcerting. For all our vain attempts to form vehicles of congregation that offer the reassuring prospect of something greater than the individual (to which we all can ostensibly belong), there is nothing that can truly fulfill our desire for ultimate union unless you believe in the unverifiable yet tantalizing prospect of a Kingdom of God in the here or hereafter.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXIII: The Tenderloin

Apparently there is a movement afoot to change the name of San Francisco’s famous vice-ridden Tenderloin to The Tempeh District. Thursday’s Times quoted Tracey Reiman, the executive vice president of a San Francisco group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, saying, “San Francisco is now renowned for some of the best vegan cuisine in the world. And the city deserves a neighborhood named after a delicious cruelty-free food instead of the flesh of an abused animal” (“Activists Urge a Vegan Makeover,” NYT, 3/30/11). However, the Times went on to underscore the fact that “the moniker had little to do with meat and more to do with a neighborhood’s olden reputation as a place where the police were on the take, receiving ‘tenderloin’ or bribes to turn a blind eye.” But let’s say The Tenderloin turned vegan. Rather than the proposed name, why not choose something more enticing like The Gluten Free Soba Sharma Greens District? The Gluten Free Soba Sharma Greens District would be a place where policemen are given tofu to look the other way. And what about vice? Many pole dancers, strippers and prostitutes in a cutting-edge place like San Francisco are undoubtedly vegan and don’t eat any meat, living or dead. So what would these sex workers in a meat- and gluten-free district offer their potential clients? Would tea-bagging be done with real teabags? Would male and female prostitutes be paid money to fellate squash or suck on a carrot? And would lap dancers call their clients “naturally sweet” rather than “sugar”?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Rihanna, Chris Brown and the Versailles Treaty

Apparently Rihanna has attempted to modify her order of protection against Chris Brown. Originally, the order had said that Brown could not be within l00 feet of her, but it turns out that this arrangement has had an adverse effect on Brown’s ability to forge ahead with his own career, in that he is unable to perform at events in which Rihanna is also appearing. You may recall that Brown beat his former girlfriend, but apparently she’s now allowing him to get a little closer again. The motto of this conflict seems to be that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Rihanna has ended up receiving criticism for her humane attitude towards her former boyfriend. How would Clausewitz, famed for his statement that war "is a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means," have dealt with Rihanna’s problem? Would he have looked on Brown as a vanquished enemy who needed to be totally humiliated in order to prevent him from doing further harm? Such was the punishment meted out to Germany by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I. The strangulation of the German economy led to rampant inflation, stoking the fires of fascism that ignited Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Despite criticism from those who accuse Rihanna of taking an overly tolerant attitude about brutality towards women—particularly in the world of R&B and hip hop, where sexy videos often portray women as disposable objects—we might conclude that Rihanna is doing for the troubled Brown what the allies should have done for Germany in 1918. Had this more tolerant approach been taken, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenberg might not have been forced to accede to Hitler’s demands to be chancellor.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Ugliness

Keith Miller deals with the notion that beauty is in the eyes, and not below the waist, in his TLS essay, “Beholders’s Eyes” (TLS, 3/12/11). Miller offers a vignette at the end of the essay that, as one might think, concerns a subject near and dear to the heart of every aesthetician from Plato onward: nudity. “Some sharp-eyed editor at the Sun had noticed that the inception of that newspaper’s Page Three feature, a smiling young girl photographed naked from the waist up, with a breezy potted biography (‘Kate from Kent, 21, likes hot-air ballooning’) attached, coincided roughly with the publication of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer,” writes Miller. Greer was subsequently asked to put in her two cents, and Miller summarizes her response thusly: “she (Greer) seemed to be saying…that these pictures were not unwholesome, because while they were effective at generating cheerfulness, they were not capable of generating desire.” While “Greer’s ‘handyman’ was quoted in support of the thesis, Kant [mentioned earlier in Miller’s essay] was not.” Would that the Sun were the sole problem confronting contemporary aestheticians as they grapple with what beauty is! Miller rues the fact that “beauty and desire are being sundered in ways that no western aesthetician could have predicted” by a culture where children “learn about the opposite sex from hard-core pornography.” Earlier in his essay, Miller offers up a brief survey of beauty, from the disinterested notion that “beauty should somehow be its own reward” to “the functionalist or utilitarian view, which holds that beauty has something to do with fitness for purpose” (argued by Robert Morris) to the idea of “perverse beauty...celebrated by, among others, Baudelaire in the nineteenth century and Bataille in the twentieth.” Though Umberto’s Eco’s latest volume, History of Beauty, was a subject of the essay, Miller points to his previous book, On Ugliness, as being more to the point in discussing the concept of beauty proposed by Baudelaire, and one “which has the field at the moment.” Elaborating on this line of thinking, Miller goes on to say,  “It’s ugliness that fascinates us and does all the deep symbolic work (sin, death, desire) in Western culture.”