Tuesday, July 19, 2011


There is something beautiful about the city when it is deserted on a hot mid-summer afternoon. There is something oppressive about it too. In Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault’s senseless murder occurs on a similarly hot, quiet day on a deserted beach. On a recent Sunday, crowds wait to board a ferry to Governor’s Island, where art is exhibited in an antiseptic government structure with linoleum tiled floors and fluorescent lighting. Some of the art concerns what is occurring right outside the gallery space—the tides and the future of the island itself. Some of it concerns bird songs and soundscapes that render visual representations. Some of the art is political and deals with the ultimate subjectivity of the observer, as with one piece that plots the degradation of a trauma victim’s testimony. The ferry ride back is equally packed and you marvel at the Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women who stubbornly cover themselves in the heat. The restaurants of Chinatown are scarcely populated, except for an ice cream parlor, which is packed. An old man sits on his stoop, smoking. Utopia is by definition that which cannot be, like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. For a moment one thinks of the sylvan sands of Eastern Long Island, but the fantasy is broken by the realization that beauty has become a commodity like everything else, and pristine settings like East Hampton, Cap d’Antibes and Venice (California and Italy) are purchased for a price. You make bargains in your head. What would you sacrifice? Is it worth it? Is anything worth it? A refined sensibility doesn’t generate the resources to acquire a front row seat to beauty. But rugged individualism, resourcefulness and luck do. Maugham had a bit of  them all, and lived in a villa called Mauresque in the fairytale locale of St. Jean Cap Ferrat.

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