Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Immortal

A Borgesian conundrum awaits the reader at the end of Stephen Cave’s opinion piece in last Sunday’s Times Week in Review (“Imagining the Downside of Immortality,” NYT, 8/27/11). “The Immortal” is, in fact, the title of a short story by Borges. Playing off the Starz/BBC series, “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” Cave postulates that the real problem of immortality is not Malthusian, but that immortality would devastate us for other reasons. “Our culture is based on the striving for immortality,” Cave says. “It shapes what we do and what we believe; it has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop.” At the end of Faust: Part Two, Goethe famously states, “The eternal feminine lures to perfection.” Yet Faust makes his bargain with Mephistopheles, who is an agent of the devil or death. Heidegger would later state that those who were not aware of death lived an inauthentic existence. But, in a way, Cave’s point is more practical and has to do with time-management and ultimately boredom. “Suddenly we would have nothing to do,” he writes about the imagined Armageddon of eternal life, “yet in the greatest of ironies, we would have endless eons in which to do it. Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to People

How do people deal with bad experiences? If you are an artist or writer, such events may have a subsidiary value to the extent that they can be turned into art. No one likes to experience loss. But for the writer, destruction may turn into the next “Tintern Abbey,” despair into The Sorrows of Young Werther, a failed relationship with a parent into Kafka’s Dearest Father, madness and insanity and failure into the next Tender is the Night, political repression into Doctor Zhivago. If Dostoevsky had not had a near-death experience in front of a firing squad, would he have written The Grand Inquisitor chapter?  But what do people do who can’t turn the bad hands they’ve been dealt into creative activities? How do they deal with the myriad ills that are part of life—loneliness, unfulfilled desire, loss of health, loss of loved ones? The bible says “the last shall be first,” and religion has always provided an anodyne, teaching us to love our enemy, to turn the other cheek. But what about the mass of men, the ones who lead lives of quiet desperation without art or belief? How do they get through it all? The one pitfall of the writer, artist or poet is that he or she, always one step removed, is too busy expropriating reality to fully avail him or herself of it. When all of existence becomes a palette, a certain immediacy and unselfconscious love of the present can be lost. However, the question remains, what do good people, who are not  artists, writers or poets, do when bad things happen to them?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Connecticut River Valley Journal II: Return of the Secaucus 7

 Thomas Eakins, albumen photograph; Hallie Cohen, digital photograph 

John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus 7 is a nostalgic look back at a group of sixties radicals. There’s a wonderful skinny-dipping scene that takes place at a swimming hole and recalls the famous Eakins painting The Swimming Hole (1885), a work that also integrates the notion of primal innocence. The luddite radicals that Sayles depicted sought a kind of innocence that had been stolen by the world of conglomerates and military industrial complexes. Both the Sayles film and the Eakins painting hearken back to the self-conscious pursuit of something like Eden, which by definition has been disappearing from the world ever since Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Can such consciousness and innocence coexist? If you are ever passing through the town of Norwich, Vermont, in the Connecticut River valley, go north on Route 5 for about a mile, then ask one of the locals where the local swimming hole is. You will come upon a setting that seems lost in time. A raft sits in the middle of a pond and parents and their children dive off the dock and swim in the icy water. The light is dappled through the trees, and despite the occasional scream when a body first touches the water, there’s a silence that makes you feel as if you’ve fallen down a worm hole—it’s your own Secaucus Seven or Swimming Hole, in which the pressing world outside is temporarily held at bay.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

Sophie Fiennes’s Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, now playing at Film Forum, reveals Anselm Kiefer to be the Donald Trump of contemporary art. Through no fault of his own, the monumental structures Kiefer creates, in particular the asymmetrical towers the film portrays, have something in common with post-modern edifices like Thom Mayne’s building at the Cooper Union. Inadvertently, the movie is about the banality of artistic process even amidst the millenarian aims of art. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a German compound word that means coming to terms with the past, and Unheimliche is a word used by Heidegger to refer to a sense of the uncanny. Both words aptly describe a German artist who is a self-appointed repository for both historical memories and images of estrangement. The world Kiefer created near the French town of Barjac, and which he would eventually abandon, is an alternative universe, with worker bees busily demolishing and rebuilding a funny house of mirrors composed of sculptural monuments to tattered books, battle tanks, ships and nameless encampments in which both revolutionary figures and the victims of genocide occupy beds that look like graves. This is the subject of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, but the movie is also a work of art in and of itself. Fiennes adopts Frederick Wiseman’s approach to documentary—there are no voiceovers, intros or explanations. Both the art and the artist speak for themselves. An Übermensch like Julian Schnabel is a minor annoyance in comparison to the massive ego that Fiennes portrays.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Connecticut River Journal: The Ledyard Bridge

Photo by Hallie Cohen

Why does the Connecticut River run between New Hampshire and Vermont? Why not call it the Vermont or the New Hampshire? There is a reason for everything. In our age of information abundance, one can find the answer simply by going to “Google.” But not all questions need to be answered. Over-definition is also a quality of this age, defined by what Max Weber called “disenchantment,” in which everything needs to be proved and nothing is left to the imagination. There is also the question of who legally controls a river that lies between two states or countries. Do you simply paddle in the middle to avoid all conflict? In the case of Vermont and New Hampshire, the answer appears to be more complicated, but who cares on a nice summer’s day? Despite the ambiguity associated with the provenance of the Connecticut River’s name, Vermonters and New Hampshirites have gotten together to produce some pretty auspicious examples of transportation architecture to memorialize the crossing between the its two banks. The bridge between Hanover, New Hampshire, and Norwich, Vermont, crosses some of the most idyllic rural scenes known to humanity true tableaux vivants, panoramas of floating canoes and kayaks that on a sunny August afternoon would challenge the talents of even the greatest painters. Maybe that’s what makes the Connecticut River so special. You really have to be there to understand its immortality.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Time Machine

H. G. Wells wrote a novel called The Time Machine. He wasn’t the first writer (nor the last) to fantasize about time travel. Today, with string theory and quantum notions like entanglement, in which a particle can be conceived of occupying two spaces at the same time, our most basic conceptions of time are challenged. Henri Bergson believed that time was essentially an invention of the mind, at least in the way we conceive the units of its progression. But when you think of it, the impulse to travel backwards and forwards or Back to the Future, as the hit movie put it, is really emotional. In The Seducer's Diary, Kierkegaard talks about the unhappiest man in the world, whose past is his future and whose future is his past, a man who, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “hopes for that which can only be remembered, and remembers that which can only be hoped.” The search for a time machine, which reached fever heights in the Romantic era that fed Wells’s spirit, is an expression of the temptation of transcendence. For the Romantic, that which doesn’t exist and can’t exist is always much more enticing then the dreary and knowable present, which is overly emphatic and offers no hope of transcendence. “A Stop at Willoughby” is the title of a famous episode of The Twilight Zone in which the protagonist journeys back to an idyllic turn-of-the-century world that turns out to be death. To the extent that the Romantic sensibility still lingers in our culture, we are all time travelers, idealizing a past that is already gone and living in the hope of some future in which the occurrence of certain contingencies will bring about utopia—a word that literally means “that which doesn’t exist.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Tropic of Canker

“As China has shed its chaste Communist mores for the wealth and indulgences of a market-oriented economy, the boom has bred a generation of nouveau-riche lotharios yearning to rival the sexual conquests of their imperial ancestors” (“China’s New Wealth Spurs a Market for Mistresses,” NYT, 8/9/11). So begins an article by Times reporter Dan Levin on the epidemic of adultery among Chinese parvenus. We choose the word parvenu in the spirit of avoiding redundancy, but what we are referring to are the same nouveau riche fat cats who since time immemorial, long before anyone ever contemplated owning a Porsche and wearing a gold neck chain as a way of attracting women, have spread like STD’s from continent to continent. It would be fun to pile on the Chinese, but adultery is as American as apple pie, Ben Franklin, John F.Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Mark Sanford, as French as the madeleine, the croissant, Napoleon, Madame Bovary, François Mitterand, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Les Liaisons Dangereux, as Russian as Anna Karenina and Pushkin, as English as Lord Byron, as Italian as Silvio Berlusconi and spaghetti, and as Latin American as Gabriel García Márquez getting a black eye from his one-time friend and rival Mario Vargas Llosa. China is a juggernaut and its titans treat their sexual peccadilloes the way its government deals with the non-floating Renminbi. Bribery has apparently become the foreplay of choice in the Chinese plutocracy, with the romantic sensibility of the culture remaining inversely proportionate to its productivity. Even the paramours practice realpolitik when it comes to their benefactors. The Times quotes one Li, a child of poverty who, armed with a university education, climbed to the top of the food chain by having an affair with her boss, who lavished her with luxuries like a Posrche and finally divorced his wife to marry her. “You can’t feed yourself with love,” says Li, with no apparent irony.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Old Battleaxes

Nedick's, Longchamps, Schrafft's, Bickford's, Horn and Hardart’s are just a few of the headstones that grace the graveyard of once-proud New York eating establishments. Though in the words of L.P. Hartley, “the past is a foreign country,” and one that we tend to idealize, there is no doubt that these chains had a great deal more flair than the big national kahuna’s that have homogenized the culinary landscape, both in New York and elsewehere. Now we have Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s (whose golden arches have become no less a religious symbol than the soaring white church steeple), Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, KFC, Popeye’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, TGIF, Chili’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Dallas BBQ and the egregiously American Applebee’s.  Nedick’s was the most modest of the old-school establishments, but its hot dogs were truly hot, and fat, spewing forth boiling fluids that derived from a unique rotisserie process. Bickford’s was a modest cafeteria that specialized in dishes like Chicken à la King, a dish that could also be found at the singular Belmore Cafeteria on Park Avenue South (popular with taxi drivers and immortalized in the Martin Scorsese classic). And then there was Horn and Hardart’s, the famed automat where coins dropped into slots opened magic doors leading to baked beans and hot dog casseroles and crocks of mac and cheese. Schrafft’s catered to a more aristocratic clientele, providing daintily cut sandwiches served by waitresses in black uniforms with doily aprons. Longchamps, an establishment popular with advertising types, furnished a cool darkness, ideal for camouflaging the surfeit of martinis quaffed down by account executives over lunch. Of all these old battleaxes, God chose to grant a second life to only one, and that was Chock Full o'Nuts, a metropolitan-area classic once proudly associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson. The brand, which had been kept alive through its “heavenly coffee,” recently opened a satellite location on West 23rd Street, which serves the old donuts, cream cheese on date-nut bread sandwiches and clam chowder that were its specialties in the days of yore. Remember the Chock Full o'Nuts jingle? “Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Amo Amas Amat

Love is an invention that makes sex possible for beleaguered Homo sapiens. Without consciousness, the trait that differentiates man from beast, we would never know what sex is. But consciousness is a two-edged sword to the extent that it acts as a filter that gets in the way of the free expression of animal desire. Even pigs, which are deemed to be among the most intelligent creatures on the planet, rarely scrutinize their partners. Farmers depend on that fact. If pigs, cows or sheep began to be exclusive, then the famine that is already fact in certain parts of the world would spread. Malthus notwithstanding, it’s astonishing that the human species has grown to its current population explosion, since men and women make themselves jump through hoops in order to bring about the consummation of desire. If the movement of idealization from the tribal to the individual context (with diminution of arranged marriage and the advent of choice) represents an evolution of culture, it’s also a baroque curiosity that verges on the grotesque. Instinct is the prime mover, but all this trouble, all these masks, all the twists and turns of this thing we call sensibility—all for the sake of a good shag? What percentage of human suffering is devoted to the broken heart? Disease, illness and death are painful parts of life, but love is the worst. Weeks, months and years are lost in regret for love lost, or in anticipation of a perfection that is never to be found. If only we could be young again, but armed with the insight that love is just the outfit that sex is dressed in.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem was instrumental in making Yiddish the language of literature in the area of Eastern Europe known as the Pale of Settlement. Born Solomon Rabinowitz to a well-to-do family, Aleichem was the product of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment, and in the years preceding the pogroms, Aleichem’s father, who would eventually lose his fortune (a traumatic event that is echoed in Tevye’s famous “If I Were a Rich Man”), had actually attempted to give his son a secular education at a time when such a thing was a distinct anomaly. Aleichem’s later turn to Yiddish, a product of Jewish culture, was in this regard a blow to his father. Aleichem’s vehicle was humor and the creation of his persona, with the name Sholem, was an effort to bend his ear to humanity. But it also derived from his realization of the power of journalism as a medium that would bring the Yiddishkeit to the masses. Joseph Dorman’s film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, makes all these points, with the help of vintage clips and commentary from famous Yiddish scholars like Daniel Miron of Columbia University, Ruth Wisse of Harvard and Hillel Halkin, among others. Bel Kaufman, author of the classic Up the Down Staircase and Aleichem’s granddaughter, also has a cameo in the film. The conflicts that overshadowed Sholem Aleichem’s career, which vacillated between secular and non-secular order (Enlightenment universalism versus an emphasis on Jewish identity), would later be mirrored in the split between intellectual contemporaries like Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem over Marxism versus Zionism. “Tradition” is another famous refrain of Tevye’s, and Dorman’s film dramatically points to the conflict that the Diaspora would create. Who would ever have thought that America, the country that was most hospitable to Jews, would be most responsible for destroying their culture?

Monday, August 15, 2011

History is a Nightmare

In a Times opinion piece that has attracted a good deal of attention, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory, argues that, like little children, the electorate needs a good bedtime story. Obama, in his mind, is a bad storyteller (“What Happened to Obama, NYT, 8/6/11). “When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters,” Westen writes. “Americans were scared and angry…. In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end.” In his address at the 1936 Democratic Convention, FDR said, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Fiorello LaGuardia was famous for reading comic strips to the denizens of his beleaguered city. But ultimately the subject is not storytelling but history. Do great historical figures still create history, with Roosevelt and Churchill being forces of good and Hitler and Mussolini representing the axis of evil? Or has the world become so complex that there are no simple stories to be created by men? Lately, history seems to be making the decisions, with men merely taking credit or being assigned blame. Computer-generated stock market programs are capable of causing huge gyrations in markets that have little relation to industrial productivity. In a world in which information can become a virus that takes on a life of its own, it’s becoming apparent that the objects of man’s creation have beat him to the punch. It would be nice if Barack Obama had been able to create a reassuring narrative that would satisfy what Professor Westen calls the brain’s expectation for “stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought.” However, if President Obama were to tell a story that could explain what is actually occurring outside our windows, it might be written in the ironic postmodern style of Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace or Nicholson Baker, or even in the complex, poetically reticulated prose of Joyce. And it would not likely be consoling or even understandable. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus presciently states, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

Summer and Smoke and Coke

Everyone talks about how wonderful the summer is, although the grousing about summer being almost over starts on the first day of June. There’s the sand, the surf, the sun and the riptides, which everyone sagely tells you not to fight (try telling a control freak to just relax and let themselves be swept out to sea). If you grew up in the ’60s, summer was transistor radios playing girl groups like the Ronettes, the Chiffons, the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles, and the melanomic smell of Coppertone #1. Now people wear SPF 80 and listen to Amy Winehouse’s protestations about going to rehab as a memorial dirge. There are conversations about how Jay-Z and Beyoncé make the most money in the music biz. Meanwhile, London Bridge is literally falling down. The fact is, summer is an anxiety-producing season that basically sucks. It’s a Goodbye, Columbus style bar mitzvah buffet, the enjoyment of which is bound to exact a price. Put your back out riding waves, burst your eyeballs ogling half-naked girls in bikinis. Enjoy the beauty of blue skies and sunlight leading to second and third degree burns while futilely trying to read your aging copy of Middlemarch, whose yellowed pages have now become covered with grease and cola stains. And then there’s the parking lot, where the heavyset mother threatens her toddler with “you wanna get smacked?” only to suffer the silent rebukes of her svelte trophy wife nemesis, imperviously wobbling in sunglasses and platform high heels towards a waiting Mercedes. Roll back those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. Who wants them?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Have You Done?

The ending of Ben Marcus’s “What Have You Done?” (The New Yorker, 8/8/11) unveils the source of the eviscerating humor of the story like a headstone that is unveiled at a gravesite long after the burial. The story is an inadvertent essay on the power of endings because the ending eradicates everything that precedes it. By the time you finish reading about the central character Paul’s past as he returns home to Cleveland for the Berger family reunion with his mom, dad, sister Alicia and brother-in-law Rick, all that matters is the future. Even if the knockout ending in which Paul’s problem is revealed, i.e., that no one believes anything he says and that there is no way to make them believe it, destroys the hilarity leading up to it, it’s still damned funny along the way.  The experience of reading the story is somewhat akin to not remembering the great time you’ve had at party after you’ve vomited all over yourself and blacked out. Describing Alicia and Rick, Marcus writes, “Alicia and Rick had their whole married lives to exchange fluids and language, but for some reason they’d needed to wait until Paul was there to demonstrate how clandestine and porno they were.” Left alone with her son, Paul’s mother experiences “the panic of someone trapped in a cage with an animal.” Brother-in-law Rick’s nonchalant line “How’s business, Paul?” elicits from Paul the thought that “these questions were just a gateway for nonsexual statistical intercourse between underachieving men.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Book of Secrets

In her front-page review of A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd in The New York Times Book Review (8/7/11), Toni Bentley quotes these lines of poetry from Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West: “My heart was more disgraceful, more alone/ and more courageous than the world has known./ O passer-by my heart was like your own.” The almost unbearable romanticism and beauty of the lines is tempered by the rhyme. But there is also something blatantly untrue about them, at least on the basis of Bentley’s exegesis of Holroyd’s work. Bentley’s review is a bit of meta-biography in and of itself, as it humorously remarks on a level of promiscuity that requires the diagramming of genealogy. “Got it?” she asks at one point. “If not, reread, and make a chart. I did.” It’s not true that Violet Trefusis’s heart was like your own, dear reader, as she was an obsessional character whose heart was powered by devices and drives, including some degree of self-dramatization, that set it above the quiet desperation of the mass of men. “Today Violet would be on a Lexapro cocktail with an Abilify chaser, Ritalin with some Ativan on the side for particularly fiery outbursts, while attending daily meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous after a few weeks of inpatient therapy with Dr. Drew at Almost-a-Celebrity Rehab,” Bentley opines. This last is reminiscent of an old Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon that speculates on how pharmaceutical psychiatry would have affected the creation of works like Waiting for Godot. Still, the poetry and the passions described are sensational in all senses of the word.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Names of Love

Michael Leclerc’s The Names of Love is so French—in its sexuality, its politics and its mixture of the two—and so much an allegory for the current state of French society, that one wonders how it was ever released in the United States. Perhaps it’s Sara Forestier’s charming and unrestrained performance that was the selling point to distributors. Forestier’s Baya is a disinhibiting force and an unsettling presence, not only because she tries to use sex as an anodyne for fascism, but because she churns up things that people don’t want to think about, such as how appearances hide reality. In the case of French society, this translates into an ideological diatribe about how a veneer of complacent infatuation with the idea of being French hides a mélange of past conflict. Both Baya and the man she falls in love with, Arthur Williams (Jacques Gamblin), who is named after a popular appliance, are products of traumatic pasts. Arthur’s grandparents died in Auschwitz, but his parents never talk about it, channeling all their energy into buying new gadgets that become instant anachronisms. Baya’s parents, paragons of radical values, are no more liberated, maintaining a code of silence about the sexual abuse Baya suffered at the hands of a piano instructor. The film ends in 2007, with Sarkozy’s triumph over the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and the birth of Arthur and Baya’s baby, Chang. The film was obviously made before the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, but it would be interesting to see if and how Leclerc would have worked it into a plot in which the former French Prime Minister and socialist presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, has a cameo role.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rush Hour

Thankfully, the Alexander McQueen show at the Met is finally ending. Under the right conditions, it might have turned into another Happy Land disco, where a fire took the lives of 87 New Yorkers back in 1990. Even the threat of fire could have caused one of those mass stampedes like the one that killed a Wal-Mart worker and injured shoppers on Black Friday in 2008. The most significant esthetic effect of the show is the way it so accurately duplicates the claustrophobic experience of an MRI. Once you have entered, you realize you are not getting out until, like sludge, you finally make it to the end of the sewage pipe. Alexander McQueen made clothes, but is this an example of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Oh, you Philistine, this accusation is like saying that anyone could paint a Pollock. No, it’s worse! It takes great talent to put one over on the public. Romanticism and Scottish nationalism are constantly used to tout McQueen’s work, which is more reminiscent of the Addams Family than anything else. One keeps waiting for the articles of clothing to come to life and reenact the famous Forth Bridge scene from Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Instead one is inflicted with a mirror behind which one finds video of a naked woman blanketed by moths, which is arguably the most fashionable image in the show. As you may glean, behind the disruption his work caused at the normally serene old Met, McQueen had things to say, but this is neither the time nor the place to preach to the ever-increasing choir of admirers.  Getting back to the experience of actually attending the exhibit, what other comparisons can be made? Rush hour on the 1-2-3, Heathrow during one of its frequent work stoppages or after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Oh what fools these mortals be!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Noble Laureate

Robert C.W. Ettinger was a physics teacher and sci-fi writer whose greatest contribution may have been to comedy. If there were a Nobel in comedy, he would have received it for his discovery of  “cryonics.” The process, by which bodies are frozen at death to be reanimated at a later date, pending the discovery of a cure for mortality, has inspired comedy greats like Woody Allen and Mike Myers. Sleeper and Austin Powers were byproducts of Mr. Ettinger’s novel appropriation of cryogenics. “In interviews, Mr. Ettinger traced his earliest interest in the possibility of immortality to a story he read when he was 12 in the popular science fiction magazine Amazing Stories,” Paul Vitello wrote in his Times obit (“Robert C.W. Ettinger, aProponent of Life After (Deep-Frozen) Death, Is Dead at 92NYT, 8/2/11). “It was about a professor who launched himself in a rocket into deep frozen outer space, where he remained entombed for 40 million years until an advanced species of men discovered him and revived him.” A later wartime experience in which Ettinger’s limbs were spared amputation “convinced him that there might be a way someday to fix anything, even death.” According to the Times, there are 106 bodies and 80 pets stored in Ettinger’s Cryonics Institute in suburban Detroit, including now Mr. Ettinger himself. The Times obit has been optioned by Ron Howard for a comedy starring Ben Stiller.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Men and Women Without Qualities

So who will embody the New Man or New Woman of our age? Parameters are generally established after the fact. Thus, the Victorian era was encapsulated by the Queen because of the monarch’s strength and the morality and counter-morality that it spawned. The fifties were the Eisenhower years, characterized as of the era of silent conformism, in which Americans basked in era of post-war prosperity. This smugness created its own counter-reformation, evidenced in the ennui and rebellion documented in the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike and John Cheever. Here are the opening lines of Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953): “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Cheever’s famous story, “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist’s escape takes the form of a journey through his neighbor’s swimming pools, creates myth out of the trivial details of suburban life. When and how will our present age be defined? Hints may come the work of yet another writer, David Foster Wallace, who died by his own hand in 2008, just as the economy was teetering on collapse. Tennis and AA were two of the themes of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, while his unfinished final novel, The Pale King, is partially set in the world of the IRS bureaucracy. Don Delillo’s Falling Man, an obvious reference to an iconic photograph, dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. But perhaps we should look to another continent and age for clues. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz capture civilizations on the verge of collapse. A suburbanite, a recovering alcoholic, a thinker, an IRS agent, a thief—which of these sensibilities will be emblematic of our times, which of these characters are we likely to encounter in art as well as in life?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Errol Morris’s Tabloid recalls Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, about the relationship between writer Joe McGinniss and serial murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, to the extent that it is a narrative about narrative and about the mutually predatory relationship between subject and object in journalism. Morris’s film also recalls the JonBenét Ramsey case in that it is rooted in the culture of the beauty pageants in which its subject, Joyce McKinney, was raised. The sordid chain of events the film depicts goes on to encompasses obsessive love, kidnapping and prostitution. Britain’s Daily Express and Daily Mirror fought over the story of the “Manacled Mormon” (McKinney purportedly kidnapped and raped Mormon Kirk Anderson), and Morris enters the fray as a Johnny-come-lately, the way Malcolm did in the Jeffrey MacDonald case, by assuming a new level of agency as he makes his contribution as a not-always-objective observer. The movie is deceptive in its comic-strip sensibility, complete with action panels, but underneath are very real players in complex relationships. McKinney’s bodyguard, KJ, is enthralled with her, while she in turn is obsessed with Anderson. “Spread Eagled” was another tabloid headline about the affair, and it’s a metaphor for the plight of the storyteller, who is hard put to get a grasp on the personality of a psychopath. McKinney, who skipped bail, would emerge years later when a Korean geneticist cloned her dog Booger. She parrots Brigitte Bardot in the end, saying, “I gave my youth to men and in my old age the dogs all love me.” Despite being the victim of a bizarre burglary in which all her files were stolen, McKinney is now attempting to embellish the myth she created by trying her hand at writing about it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The ED Team

The fight against erectile dysfunction (or ED) must be a team effort, argues a recent Everyday Health article (“The Erectile Dysfunction Treatment Team,”, 7/22/11). However, it’s common knowledge that the psychology of ED, or Mr. Ed as some sufferers affectionately refer to it, is rooted in that youthful passage when junior is a little off (though maybe not by too far) in thinking that Mom wants him to stick it in. Junior becomes so frightened by his fear of Dad (or the Big Bad Wolf in folkloric terms) that he begins to have murderous thoughts. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression “the only defense is a good offense.” But the ED team must also look to other causes. The Everyday Health piece contains a whole list of people who might be enlisted in the fight against ED, which afflicts over 30 Million men and the women who love them, or at least would like to get laid by them. Everyday Health was correct in adding practitioners of alternative medicine as well as doctors to the ED team, but it’s important that if you do go into the world of alternative medicine to cure ED that you chose a bona fide medicine man. Oftentimes, ED sufferers seek help from urologists who are all too willing to take their money to solve the problem. Just because the pee-pee hole is located at the end of the penis, that’s no reason to conclude that urinary function has anything to do with ED. Most ED sufferers would do just as well to see a vagina specialist or OBGYN than an urologist. In fact, most ED suffers would be better off if they retained an otolaryngologist or even a brain surgeon, since more often than not penile problems originate in the head.