Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Giornale Pugliese II: Svevo

 Watercolor by Hallie Cohen

Italo Svevo was the nom de plume of Ettore Schmitz, the Jewish Italian author of Confessions of Zeno, whose protagonist attempts to deal with his smoking problem by going into psychoanalysis. It is unlikely that Svevo derived his pseudonym from the Castello Svevo in Bari, an extraordinary structure with pointed arches and an escape door leading out to the sea. The Castello conjures a similarly ancient structure, the Martello Tower where Buck Mulligan gads about in Ulysses, which is curious since Joyce is said to have discovered Svevo the writer. As you negotiate the winding streets leading down to the old city of Bari, the Castello’s dramatic tower points an accusatory finger at you. Now both a museum and the site of an excavation, Castello Svevo’s varied history began with Roger the Norman, but his good work was destroyed at the hands of William the Bad in 1186. Frederick the Second presided during the Swabian period, while Isabel of Aragon reigned over the Aragonese. Her daughter, Bona Sforza of Poland, was still rehabbing the castle in 1524. Trieste and Bari both face the Adriatic and Italo Svevo lived his whole life in Trieste, where he worked in his father’s import/export business. Besides Confessions of Zeno, Svevo was also known for the novel Senilità (As a Man Grows Older). 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Giornale Pugliese I: Rome

Among the greatest sites of Rome are the hordes of tourists ascending and descending the steps of the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla. The invasion conjures images of cockroaches, termites and particularly ants, which produce their own sophisticated colonies in the shadows of human civilization. There are sections of Rome adjacent to the major tourist destinations where Italian has become the second language and native speakers are required to hire interpreters if they wish to be understood. The tourists visiting Rome, particularly in the summer months, also resemble fungi, which suffocate and kill certain kinds of trees. It is said that tourism is the life blood of Rome, one of its few major industries in an age when the greats of Italian cinema—Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica and Pasolini—are long dead, and Cinecitta, the home of the great Italian studios, no longer produces classics for the world (La Cicciolinia notwithstanding). Rome has become like Brecht’s fictional city of Mahagonny, where “die achtung fur geld” is the overriding principle. Beauty once constituted the profound and incalculable wealth of Rome, but the city that once fell to the Visigoths is now being overrun by packs of digital-camera wielding hyenas, their mouths dripping with the entrails of their victim.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On What Matters

Peter Singer is a great utilitarian philosopher and the author of a classic tome called Animal Liberation. He supports euthanasia for certain people, while decrying the confinement of pregnant pigs. In the May 20 issue of the TLS, Singer reviews Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, a book that takes aim at the ethical relativism that derives from Hume. Singer writes, “Reason applies to means not ends. Hence, Hume famously held, it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of a finger, and equally not contrary to reason to choose my total ruin to prevent a trivial harm to a stranger.” What is so delightful about philosophical treatises like Parfit’s two volumes (which run to 1,400 pages) and Singer’s review-length response, are the examples used to illustrate the points themselves. You also find this in treatises that deal with the Trolley Problem or the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which try to parse the subtleties of ethics and morality. As Singer points out, finding objective truths about human action inevitably leads back to “…Kant’s famous but imprecise idea that it is wrong to act on any maxim that could not be a universal law….” But this is too broad for Parfit, who adopts what Singer describes as an “intuitionist” approach. What if the earth is destroyed by some natural phenomenon? Was the advent of human life and culture worth it? “Our answer may depend,” Singer says in summarizing Parfit’s thinking, “not only on how we balance the suffering that has resulted from human existence against the happiness it has brought, but also on what weight we give to the badness of the fact that some people suffered greatly without having anything to compensate them for their suffering.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Madness and Death

Perhaps Laurence Olivier is such a mythical figure that one takes him for granted. But his virtuosity was once again confirmed in a recent screening of his 1948 Hamlet at the The NewYork Psychoanalytic Institute. Ernest Jones wrote a classic tome entitled Hamlet and Oedipus, and no matter what philosophical or psychological filter one applies to Olivier's classic performance—whose greatness, like the Mona Lisa’s smile, lies in ambiguity itself—the subject of the so-called Oedipus complex is an unavoidable theme, making a psychoanalytic institute the perfect venue for such a revival. Stanley Holloway stands out in particular as the gravedigger, presiding over his little kingdom from the floor of Ophelia’s grave and offering the measurements of death itself. Heidegger claimed that the awareness of death was crucial to living an “authentic” existence, and this scene, more than any modern treatment of the dying process, tries to take the hereafter into account in the most empirical way possible. About Ophelia, the gravedigger says, "One that was a woman, sir, but rest her soul, she's dead." Ironically, later, in trying to explain his rash actions to Laertes, Hamlet attributes the loss of his self to madness. Foucault wrote a book called Madness and Civilization, but a good subtitle for the Olivier Hamlet, and the way it emphasizes the extinction of personality, could be Madness and Death.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The School for Lies

Any playwright who bases his protagonist on Alceste of Molière’s The Misanthrope, and goes on to name him Frank, courts greatness. In David Ives’s The School for Lies, playing through May 29 at the Classic Stage Company, Frank (Hamish Linklater) says things like “I’m the truest democrat on this earthly crust/ I treat everyone with equal disgust” and “Say what’s in your heart/ a woman wants your matter not your art.” And then there’s the line that gives the play its title, “Society is nothing but the school for lies.” The language further captures the spirit of Molière by being rendered in alexandrines.   Alceste is one of the great creations of World Theater, a character whose view of human duplicity is based upon a myopic selectivity. Suffice to say that Alceste’s world view is the direct opposite of Hume’s and Locke’s. His empiricism is based upon diseased perceptions mixed with a lust for perfection, in himself and others, that is eternally belied by the word “human,” though that is precisely what makes him both endearing and human. No philosopher of reason could have created Alceste, and Ives’s Frank is more Alceste than Alceste. However, there is a dramatic sleight of hand here that falls back on The Winter’s Tale and Superman. But it would be stupid to reveal that trick, since it would ruin everything for Screaming Pope readers who want to know who the real Frank is.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Executioner's Song

Bernard Hopkins is now the light heavyweight champion of the world, having beaten Canada’s Jean Pascal in a rematch Saturday night in Montreal. George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer when he was 45, but Hopkins at 46 seems to thrive on the challenges of aging with singular relish. He’s beaten the likes Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones, Jr., Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright and the hard punching Felix Trinidad. But booking these fights hasn’t always come easy. At first, he was the brash punk. Later, after he’d become “The Executioner,” coming into the ring with his face covered in a black mask, no one wanted to fight him, and rightly so. Upon his release from prison, where Hopkins began his boxing career, a skeptical warden sneered that he would be waiting to welcome him back. Hopkins has overcome any number of obstacles, indicating that he requires such resistance to get his blood running. Interestingly, the fighter who is perhaps the most feared is also the most defensive. In the Pascal fight, when he let his emotions get the best of him and deviated from his trademark style, starting to mix it up with the younger fighter, he was humbled. That’s when the discipline kicked back in and he started to box, slipping and ducking, working his combinations and staying out of harm’s way, with the noteworthy exception that he seemed to be leading with his right, uncharacteristically brawling right up until the end. Hopkins’s style of ferocious defensiveness should be developed into an iPhone app for ambitious young executives, or better yet for heavyweights like the U.S., China, and Russia as they compete for hegemony in international affairs. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Judgment Day

Judgment Day, according to those who were convinced the world would come to an end around 6PM this past Saturday, is when believers “…expect to be absorbed into heaven in a process known as the rapture” (“Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending,” NYT, 5/19/11). A different kind of Judgment Day will occur when the jury hands down a verdict in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. In the first case, judgment leads to the Gates of St. Peter. In the second, it will in all likelihood lead to the gates of prison. Perhaps the roots of Strauss-Kahn’s epic downfall lie in the I.M.F.'s personnel policies, which the Times excerpted in a separate piece: “‘Intimate personal relationships, between supervisors and subordinates, do not, in themselves, constitute harassment’” (“At I.M.F., Men on Prowl and Women on Guard,” NYT, 5/19/11). Was this credo by any chance lifted from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom? The word subordinate would send a frisson of pleasure down the spine of any member of the Eulenspiegel Society. Here is the first line of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” The I.M.F., the lender of last resort for governments that need money,” is an organization that employs many economists. Perhaps they would do well to go back to the author of The Wealth of Nations in proposing guidelines for how members of their little society, a microcosm of the world they purport to help, should comport themselves.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Media Challenged

Now that Mildred Patricia Baena has been identified as the mother of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love-child, one question remains: will there be enough reporters available to cover Schwarzenegger’s breakup with Maria Shriver? Unconfirmed reports that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victim lives in a housing facility for people with AIDS and that she spit his semen onto the floor of the hotel only increase the pressure on chronically understaffed newspapers and online outlets like The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Drudge Report (“IMF Accuser in Apt. for HIV Vics,” New York Post, 5/18/11) The fact that ad revenues in print and online media probably peak with each newly leaked celebrity transgression doesn’t really solve what is essentially a staffing problem. For instance, both Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen should be paid royalties by publications like The New York Post that profit from their misdeeds. However, it is unlikely that any print publication is going to hire more reporters on the basis of an upswing in the kinds of meltdowns we’ve seen of late—primarily because such events, while profitable, tend to be fickle as sources of income. Maria Shriver, who herself was a television anchor before she gave up journalism because of her position as the governor's wife, should be the first to realize how marital breakups like the one she is experiencing tax the resources of information-gathering organizations. The fact that she has indicated she won’t talk further on the subject of her ruined marriage is admirable though unfortunate since, in effect, she’s the ultimate stringer. What better person to report on a husband’s marital infidelity than his jilted wife?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Monkey Business

One thing the current Strauss-Kahn scandal illustrates is how sex is an issue that crosses party lines. The man who a short time ago was the likely future president of France shares something in common with a man who could rightly be his political arch-enemy, Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire Italian premier. Berlusconi has also been in court recently on a sex crime allegation. Here in the U.S., Newt Gingrich, who once led the charge to impeach Clinton, now finds himself defending his own past extramarital behavior as he seeks the Republican nomination. Here is a 2004 quote from ethically-challenged former Senator John Ensign: “Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded. For those who say that the Constitution is so sacred that we cannot or should not adopt the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would simply point out that marriage, and the sanctity of that institution, predates the American Constitution and the founding of our nation.” This of course came before he had an affair with the wife of one of his aides. Desire and instinct are the great levelers. Gary Hart was a Democratic hopeful before his misadventures on the Monkey Business, and former California Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gave up his hope of becoming a lifetime member of the Kennedy clan when he fathered the child of one of his domestic employees. At least he didn’t pop out of the bathroom nude, drag her down a hallway and force her to perform oral sex.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Droit du seigneur

Poignant is a meaningless word that should be excised from the English language, but there’s one situation to which it can be applied, well, poignantly. It’s the experience of knocking on the door of a so-called “club privé” in Paris, behind which the thump of techno and gay laughter can be heard, seeing a peephole in the door open and hearing through the intercom “je suis desolé.” This is the way the French reject you, which brings up the question of what the French do with their untouchablesthe class of ugly and unsexy citizens who might echo Woody Allen’s line from Annie Hall, “I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the I.M.F. head who was arrested on charges of attempted rape, is obviously one of France’s beautiful people. Married to an American-born French TV journalist, one would suppose he has never had the experience of being told “je suis desolé” by anyone—until now that is. Odds are that both Strauss-Kahn and his wife will soon be shunned from one of France’s most exclusive clubs: the upper echelons of the Socialist Party. Make no mistake. If socialism means spreading the wealth, the French version has nothing to do with egalitarianism. Ségolène Royal, the last unsuccessful socialist candidate, may have been told “je suis desolé” by the electorate, but it’s unlikely that the Catherine Deneuve of French politics has ever been told “je suis desolé” by anyone else. Even those who didn’t vote for her would eagerly have invited her into their private discos and dining clubs. St. Tropez, which epitomizes the height of chic, embodies the experience of “desolation,” a noun created for the benefit of all those who have suffered the experience of being told “je suis desolé.” Don’t go to St. Tropez if you are ugly and unsexy, especially if you’re not French. Which brings up the related notion of droit du seigneur. That’s the complex Strauss-Kahn was suffering from when the chambermaid in his room tried to say “je suis desolé.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Finance Minister and the Chambermaid

George Simenon was a notorious rake, having purportedly had sex with thousands of women, including chambermaids. Simenon was almost as prolific in writing his Inspector Maigret novels and other works, but not quite. Now, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and a prospective Socialist party presidential candidate, has been accused of raping a maid in his $3,000-a-night Times Square Sofitel suite. The Times reported that this was not the first time Strauss-Kahn, who is married to "Anne Sinclair, an American-born French journalist," has gotten into trouble as a result of his desires for employees (“I.M.F. Chief, Apprehended at Airport, Is Accused of Sexual Attack,” NYT, 5/15/11). At the I.M.F., he’d gotten involved with Piroska Nagy, “a Hungarian economist who was a subordinate there.” “The economist…left the fund as part of a buyout of nearly 600 employees instituted by Mr. Strauss-Kahn to cut costs.” Would that the solution for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was arrested in the first-class section of an Air France jet, were as neat or simple this time around. The Times quoted Paul J. Browne, spokesman for the NYPD, as saying Strauss-Kahn “came out of the bathroom, fully naked…. He grabs her, according to her account, and pulls her into the bedroom and onto the bed…. She fights him off and he then drags her down the hallway to the bathroom….” The French are noted for an easy-going attitude towards sex, and jumping into bed with chambermaids is a routine part of French farce. It’s also a reflection of a more universal law, which is that everybody wants to fuck everybody (in both the amorous and aggressive connotations of the word). If Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers were alive, they might have even used this in a Pink Panther sequel in which Clouseau is on the trail of a randy finance minister—only this isn’t a farce.

Friday, May 13, 2011

SisterMonk Gypsy Funk Trio

You’ve seen the doo-wop groups, break-dancers and Mexican balladeers who wander through subway cars, and you’ve seen the violinists trying to finance their studies by serving "caviare to the general." On a recent night, the esplanade between the R train and the Broadway 1-2-3 at Times Square was occupied by a group called the SisterMonk trio. SisterMonk's female lead, K. Deane, plays a bongo, attached to her waist with a worn leather strap, wears ankle tambourines and sings with a virtuosity that is reminiscent of soul greats like Aretha Franklin. Her vocals are a mixture of jazz, swing, and the outlaw style of Rick James, with a little bit of Gloria Gaynor’s gospel disco style thrown in for good measure. Everything about Deane is magnified. Her bongo and tambourines are rudimentary, but it sounds like she’s Gene Krupa pounding away on a complete drum set with cymbals. The net effect of listening to Deane, who is accompanied by Trevor Hochman on bass and Jody Rubel on guitar, is to make you feel really cool and impregnable. Watching her, you get that old feeling from adolescence when music made you soar above everyone and made the petty concerns and responsibilities of living seem totally irrelevant, though her music doesn’t make you want to escape. It makes you want to stay right where you are, in this case the bustling Times Square subway station. She and her group offer the raw nourishment of hardtack. You want to merge with them, and you’d follow Deane on her odyssey if it weren’t for the rumble of your train pulling into the station. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Mourning, but Not Melancholia

In Wednesday’s Times “Arts, Briefly” column, Charles McGrath reports on the controversy surrounding Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, A Widow’s Story (“Joyce Carol Oates Updates Her Widow's Story,” NYT, 5/11/11). The book, which was excerpted last year in The New Yorker, describes the demise of her husband, Ontario Review editor Raymond Smith. Apparently Oates, whose memoir can been compared to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had already remarried by the time A Widow’s Story appeared. McGrath quotes the acclaimed English novelist Julian Barnes as saying, “Some readers will feel they have a good case for breach of narrative promise.” But the controversy begs the question of how one mourns the loss of a loved one—a subject that is dealt with in two other memoirs, one by Meghan O’Rourke, who wrote about the death of her mother, and another by Francesco Goldman, who wrote a memoir in novel form about an incident at a Mexican resort that brought his wife’s life to an end. Matthew von Unwerth addresses the subject of mourning in his book Freud’s Requiem, which examines Freud’s essay “On Transience,” a work inspired by a walk Freud took with Lou Andreas Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke in the summer of 1915. Like the Oates memoir, both O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye and Goldman’s Say Her Name were serialized in The New Yorker (which is probably setting some sort of record for publishing accounts of this kind), but von Unwerth’s tome about Freud most closely addresses the substance of the controversy surrounding Oates. Following von Unwerth’s line of thought in his analysis of the Freud essay, one might say that it was in fact Oates’s ability to effectively mourn her husband, in part through her writing, that allowed her to let go of the past and find love again.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Man in the Glass Booth

A front-page Times article, written on the 50th anniversary of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, cites German historian Ulrich Herbert’s comments on the famous phrase, “the banality of evil,” which Hannah Arendt coined in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (“50 Year After Trial, Eichmann Secrets Live On,” NYT, 5/9/11). Herbert says that it wasn’t so much a correct statement about Eichmann as a statement of  “disappointment in the lack of magnitude, even if diabolical, which one would somehow expect from one of the most important organizers of mass murders.” The Times piece delves even further into the human capacity for evil, pointing to the fact that uncovered files from the post-war era indicated that Germans were hardly chastened or contrite about the Holocaust. “Bild, the German tabloid, having recently forced the BND through the courts to release a few files, uncovered an index card from 1952 that made clear that West German intelligence officials already knew Eichmann was living in Argentina,” comments Times writer Michael Kimmelman in pointing to the fact that Germany’s intelligence service had information that could have led to Eichmann’s apprehension long before the Mossad nabbed him in 1960. It’s an argument the historian Jonah Goldhagen made in his controversial tome, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which paints the evil less as banal than as intentional, if somehow lacking in the kind of grandeur Coleridge attributed to Iago’s evil when he described it as “motiveless malignity.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tiresias or the DSM

In therapeutic sessions, patients often express their fears. If a patient is extremely disturbed, he might believe that there are little men lurking outside his window. He might think these men are talking and that they are telling him to do something, even something rather trite. If the condition is not too severe, the therapist might attempt to help the patient to understand that he is displacing or projecting his own feelings and thoughts onto another person. Hypochondriacs feel they are sick when they are perfectly fine, and parents who suffer from the esoteric syndrome called Münchausen’s syndrome by proxy have very real but illusory feelings about their children being sick. Amongst the neurological symptoms that indicate distorted cognitions is Capgras syndrome, in which the sufferer believes a friend or relative is an imposter, a stranger occupying a familiar-seeming face and body. This last is dramatized by Richard Powers in his novel The Echo Maker. The horror classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is particularly terrifying in that it creates a funhouse view of this very real phenomenon. The reverse neurological symptom is prosopagnosia, in which the afflicted person is no longer able to recognize the faces of those he would otherwise know. Capgras might create paranoia, but prosopagnosia is an adult form of stranger anxiety in which the comfort of familiarity is lost. The DSM, the manual that psychologists and psychiatrists use to categorize and identify illnesses, lists conditions ranging from eating disorders, compulsivity about the search for pleasure (a form of hedonism), and anhedonia (the inability to tolerate pleasure at all), to more far-ranging disorders like psychosis and schizophrenia. Joanne Woodward starred in a movie about multiple personality called The Three Faces of Eve (1957). David and Lisa (1962) elaborated on the theme of schizophrenia and Olivia de Havilland starred in The Snake Pit (1948), a classic about abusive treatment of the mentally ill that foreshadowed the deinstitutionalization of the many severely disturbed patients who would go on to constitute our vast homeless population. But more disturbing than symptoms that are rooted in paranoia and delusion are those that turn out to be rooted in a grim reality. Let’s say a patient had walked into a therapist’s office in Tokyo six months ago and said that he had the feeling that the Northern coast of Japan would be hit by a huge wave that in turn caused a nuclear meltdown? What would we tell to sufferers from pre-9/11 nightmares about terrorists taking over jetliners and flying them into World Trade Center? What would we say to the patient who is obsessed with the idea that it was a genetically engineered double and not Osama bin Laden who was murdered last week?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Deal Book: Abbottabad's Thriving Coop Conversion Market

Insider prices for owners of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments have reached new highs in Abbottabad, the historic city in Northern Pakistan that Osama Bin Laden had called home for the past few years. Previous to the arrival of the Navy Seals, there had already been a hefty demand for coops that had spurred the market, providing highly advantageous financial rewards for Pakistani families entertaining buyout offers. While the intelligence services are still ferreting through mountains of computer files, some of which may have been encrypted, there is still no word on whether the family that had rented the compound for Bin Laden had actually been planning to take advantage of such a favorable market, or whether Bin Laden himself would perhaps have had a stake in any such transaction. It should be noted that Bin Laden is a major name in Saudi construction and that without a doubt Bin Laden himself would easily have been savvy about these kinds of real estate transactions. In fact, it has been reported that members of his terrorist network had scouted coop conversions, along with other kinds of real estate transactions, on their frequent forays to New York preceding both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attack. Al Qaeda operatives were apparently open minded when it came to real estate, considering many properties as sources of windfall profits as well as potential bombing targets.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dream Machine

Rivka Galchen is a talented fiction writer and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances, a first novel that won the William Saroyan International Prize in 2010. But she is also a gifted science writer, which is not surprising since some science can read like fiction without being science fiction. In the May 2 New Yorker she writes about quantum computing, which “instead of bits uses qubits” (“Dream Machine,” The New Yorker, 5/2/11). Quantum computing depends on the old 01 binary function, but “a qubit can be zero and one” instead of the classical zero or one. It’s called superposition and Galchen describes how it is comparable to Schrödinger’s cat, who is “dead and alive at the same time.” “Superposition is like Freud’s description of true ambivalence: not feeling unsure, but feeling opposite extremes of conviction at once,” Galchen says in one particularly brilliant display of her ability to navigate between the worlds of interior emotion and natural law. In grammatical terms, qubits are analogous to oxymorons. Read the piece, but don’t try to understand. After all, Galchen says that it’s about ontology more than epistemology. She focuses on the work of an Oxford physicist David Deutsch, who has written books with names like The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity and who, to some, has carried forward the tradition of great computational innovators like Alan Turing. But Hugh Everett’s controversial Many Worlds theory is at the heart of the ontology Galchen is trying to clarify. As Galchen describes it, “Information that seemed to travel faster than the speed of light and along no detectable pathway… can…be understood to move…via the tangencies of abutting universes.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Shuffle and Breakdown

Cody Walker should be made poet laureate of Saturday Night Live. Go out and buy his book of poems, Shuffle and Breakdown. He’s a really funny fellow. He recently read at McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street. Walker’s a voluble personality who looks bemused by his own utterances, as if the words had just popped out unexpectedly, like a kid with a form of Tourette’s that makes him involuntarily cry out “Mama!” in the classroom. He has turned this element of uncontrollable self-surprise into poems. He read a poem with expletives in front of an audience that included his infant daughter, explaining that he wouldn’t be able to use the same words when she grew up. He read a poem called "Chickenless Pulled Chicken" that a publisher mistakenly thought was about jerking off. Like a lot of poets, he writes about other poets—in this case Kenneth Koch. You don’t have to work when you're listening to Walker read. Not that difficult art is bad, but sometimes there’s a place for play and fun. Cody Walker is perhaps the perfect example of Homo ludens intellectualis—intellectual man at play.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Banality of Evil

HuffPost News recently posted a piece about White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s correcting and updating of the circumstances of Osama bin Laden’s demise (“White House Revises Account of Bin Laden’s Final Moments,” HuffPost News, 5/3/11). “Carney also retraced the steps by which Bin Laden’s body was buried in the North Arabian Sea,” HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery wrote. “The body was washed, placed in a white sheet and in a weighted bag, at which point a military officer ‘read prepared religious remarks’ that were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. The body was then ‘placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, and the deceased body eased into the sea…’” The famous children’s prayer —“Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, pray the lord my soul to take”—somehow comes to mind in reading Carney’s account, particularly when you come upon the description of Bin Laden’s youth, which David Brooks provided in his op-ed column in Tuesday’s Times (“What Drives History,” NYT, 5/2/11). “He…was sent to an elite school, wearing a blue blazer and being taught by European teachers,” Brooks noted, crediting as his source Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. “As a boy he watched ‘Bonanza’ and became infatuated by another American show called ‘Fury,’ about a troubled orphan boy who goes off to a ranch and tames wild horses.” Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Balloon Wars

There is the long-simmering conflict between North and South Korean, with its famed DMZ on the 38th parallel. And then there is the balloon war between once-allies who have now become foes. Such is the nature of human kind that even those who seek the same ends through similar means (in this case 40-foot-high vinyl balloons carrying anti North Korean screeds) often find themselves at odds when the monster Ego raises its ugly head. Friday’s Times reported on the conflict between Park Sang-hak, chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, and Lee Min-Bok, an evangelical Christian and leader of the rival group, Campaign for Helping North Korea in a Direct Way (“Balloon-Borne Messages to North Korea Have Detractors on Both Sides of Border,” NYT, 4/26/11). Much of the rivalry takes place in the border town of Imjingak, where residents find that the dispute, which has gotten “confrontational” at times, frightens away busloads of tourists, who prefer their conflicts served up in a more mediated environment. “I’m the original,” the Times quoted Mr. Lee as saying. The Times then quoted Lee calling Park “an ingrate” focused only on “greed and money and fame.” Mr. Park is apparently not one to eat crow. The Times reported him saying Mr. Lee is a “a crazy person” and  “a Christian zealot,” who “even among defectors is “an outsider.” Is there a lesson to be learned here?

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Bin Laden Killed"

The dramatic Times headline on the morning following Osama bin Laden’s “termination with extreme prejudice,” to use CIA terminology, reads, “Bin Laden Killed by U.S. Forces in Pakistan, Obama Says, Declaring Justice Has Been Done” (NYT, 5/2/11). It’s an interesting choice of words, since the headline might have emphasized the internecine implications of where Bin Laden was found, who exactly performed the attacks, and in what company the now-deceased terrorist leader found himself in his last moments on earth. For instance, Hiroshima conjures the now iconic image of the Enola Gay and its pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets. Historic actions beg the question of how they were performed and who performed them. Surely the Bin Laden operation, which if nothing else will ensure Obama’s reelection, has implications beyond the fact that “justice has been done,” which is the broadest stroke with which this complicated, world-historical action can be painted. One wonders what would have happened if the generals' plot against Hitler had succeeded—would the tides of war have changed? It was widely thought that the toppling of Saddam Hussein would free Iraq, but the outcome of that maneuver has been far more complex, and tragic. If Qaddafi had been killed in the attack that killed his youngest son, Saif al-Arab, would Libya’s divisive opposition have suddenly become united, mobilized and energized in the common purpose of creating a democratic society? That question may soon be answered, as will the net effects of the destruction of Bin Laden on the terror network he controlled. In the meantime, mercantilism is always a good barometer. Will Toyota now open a dealership in Wajiristan?