Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Death Takes A Holiday

“Americans as mobile in death as in life”  is the phrase Michael T. Luongo  uses in a recent Times Business Section piece (“Even in Death, Mobility,” NYT, 10/24/11). And listen to the ancillary organizations and personnel who have cropped up to service this trend. Muneerah Warner of the Warner Funeral Home in Philadelphia heads up a women’s funeral organization entitled Funeral Divas. Ms. Warner, who has arranged  “South African funerals for clients born there,”  remarks that while she has not traveled in her work, “You would like to go because your work is being finished on them (the cadavers) in another country.” Speaking of finishing, Luongo quotes Rob Matt, “a hairstylist  with salons in West Hollywood and Palm Springs” as saying that “he had traveled to render what he called  ‘hair services for end-of-life care,’  usually to longtime clients, ‘to be there to see how they appear to others when they pass.’” Luongo goes on to describe a division of Delta called Delta Cares which is the largest carrier of “human remains, moving about 25,000 bodies a  year.”  The head of Delta’s North American cargo operation Andy Kirschner remarks, “People are traveling more. They pass away when they vacation or in different areas when they are away from home, and this is why we see an increase.” You can even purchase what is essentially funeral travel insurance in case you die during vacation  and need to have your remains shipped home. Luongo cites Neill O’Connor of the O’Connor Funeral Home in Laguna Beach who offers such coverage for $285. Death is, of course, the ultimate vacation and the trip across the Styx is reputedly more relaxing than the average cruise.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants

Andre Malraux wrote a famous memoir called Anti-Memoirs.  Anti can be used in the same way in talking about Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Payne posits an anti-hero in an anti-paradise who by the end of the movie steps into the shoes of his heroic ancestors by restoring the paradise that was their legacy. George Clooney’s Matt King is the scion of an aristocratic Hawaiian family. The Kings are the repository of a huge stake of pristine real estate which is about to be sold off, producing a tremendous windfall for both Matt and the clan of relatives he represents. But King doesn’t exude the confidence of his social and material position. In fact, he’s spent his life  compensating for his good fortune both by overwork and by living well below his means. Similarly, the Hawaii in which he resides is a far cry from paradise. It’s a place where everything literally seems to be smaller rather than larger than life. The enormous real estate transaction which hangs over the movie like a dust cloud or tropical storm comes on the heels of a freak accident which has put Matt’s wife Elizabeth into a coma. King is an intentionally inchoate creation who has yet to wake up. His is a role which is not easily defined since it has yet to be and Clooney meets up with the challenge, as do the other actors in Payne’s troop who play Matt’s two daughters  the l7 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodly) and the l0 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s slow witted but fast talking  boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). At the beginning they are four characters in search of an author, but by the end of the movie the stamp of “earned” can easily be placed on the emotions they embody.  Pure melodrama is always lurking as a pitfall in a film where one of the central players is a comatose woman on  a ventilator. But Payne mixes up his own cocktail made up of  pathos, turning to humor and violence begetting empathy. Emotions turn on a dime and when in the end Matt says “lovely Elizabeth, my friend, my pain, my joy” you believe he is capable of mourning the fickle and unfaithful woman he has reviled, but still plainly loves.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Star Wars

The inscription over the entrance to the new Islamic wing at the Met reads “New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” And the exhibit of over 1200 objects from the museum’s over 12,000 pieces which takes up fifteen rooms records successions of conquests and movements of peoples that start with Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina and include amongst others the Abbasids victory over the Umayyads, the founding of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 which included not only Anatolia, but the Balkans, the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, Arabia and North Africa and the rise of Suleiman the Magnificent the legendary Ottoman sultan in the16th Century. Conquests would bring about relative periods of stability in which great figures like the astronomer al-Biruni (Alberonius) and the philosopher Ibn Sima (Avicenna) thrived. So extensive is this trove that it’s an understatement to call it an exhibit. And, indeed, there is a room devoted just to the collectors, amongst them names like Morgan, Havemeyer and Houghton, whose amassing of works of sculptures, coins, rugs, vases and other precious objects became the lode from which the curators were later to draw. However perhaps the most dramatic conquest that the new wing illustrates is the conquest of the Islamic art over the Met. It was as if some Caliph or Emir with a Maecenas complex had led a crusade through the museum and in so doing created a new Empire that went beyond the bounds of space, time or religious affiliation, something so large, in fact, that no visitor could every really embrace all the sensations it induces. Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism to describe the Westerner’s middling attempts to reduce and grasp the East. This monumental permanent addition to the Met which follows the Silk Road and encompasses a land mass from China to the Mediterranean and a time period from the Hijira to the fall of the Ottoman Empire needs a more pithy title like say, Star Wars.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Employees of Southwestern Reserve vs. Estate of Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of male and female employees of the Southwestern Reserve Bank who claim their civil rights were being violated when they were forced to attend meetings with the bank’s president who was a Pasolini fan. In briefs filed with the court (“Southwestern Reserve Employees vs Estate of Pier Paolo Pasolini”) the class action suit alleges that for almost a decade the bank president  regularly played films like Salo on his laptop while meetings with his subordinates were in progress.  Salo, a particularly graphic film, based on de Sade’s  l20 Days of Sodom, takes places in a concentration camp where coprophilia is freely practiced. The president, Jim Baker, who now occupies a mostly figurehead position as chairman of the board, is still a Pasolini enthusiast though he no longer empowered to ask employees to attend meetings in his office while he is screening the Pasolini films. Though involving seemingly simple first amendment issues, the case, according to experts is mired in complex legal questions—in part due to a fine point in the law where the estate of the deceased film director rather than the bank president is named as the respondent in the action. One film critic was quoted in a friend of the court brief as saying “these employees were forced to watch people eating poo.” There had been several previous rulings on matters which could impact the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pasolini case. In Gander vs. State of Connecticut, the court ruled in favor of the plaintive, a convent which argued that the presence of a sewage disposal plant made it impossible for the nuns to mediate and perform their offices. In Shapiro vs. Cleveland, the court ruled in favor of the municipality saying that a sinkhole in the middle of a public park was not necessarily a danger to bicyclists if a warning sign had been temporarily removed. The details of the latter case would not appeal to those readers with weak stomachs.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Small Talk

The holiday season is upon us. But along with the tree in Rockefeller Center and the window displays in Fifth Avenue department stores, New York will become home to a number of small talk conventions. Small talk with its famed expressions like “we’re on the same page,” “it’s a plan” and the ne plus ultra of meaningless drivel, “I can’t complain,” is bad enough in English. But it reaches a pinnacle of mediocrity when two people who don’t share the same mother tongue engage in it. For example one of the city’s most popular small talk conventions recently occurred on a downtown 103 Third Avenue bus. Two of the registrants, an indigenous male American and a woman from an unidentified Spanish speaking country, who only spoke broken English, were attempting to exchange opinions on the foods they liked. The conversation had actually been smooth sailing, until the Spanish speaking woman developed a querulous look of panic when the American introduced the word “pilaf.” “You know pilaf,” the American explained. When the woman continued to shake her head, he finally relented from his insistence on the importance of the word and said “it’s like yellow rice.” The young Spanish woman’s face lit up with recognition. Indeed yellow rice was something she knew and liked and it was as if she had run into a high school friend from Barcelona who spoke Polish while touring a Crakow neighborhood whose unparsable billboards and street signs were creating feelings of alienation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Consciousness is Destiny

Freud said “anatomy is destiny”, but one wonders if consciousness hasn’t become the rogue player making  personality into a more labile affair. How can one talk about sexual identity without cracking a smile? Flaubert said “Madame Bovary,  c’est moi.” Aren’t we increasingly becoming our own creators. Is self invention our most viral secular heresy? Can for example a middle aged married supposedly “heterosexual male” have the sensibility of a woman who loves other women? Or more bluntly have you  ever looked at the person you are making love to and wondered what they are? Some marriage counselors have pointed out that we all marry our same sex parent. Therefore a woman making love with her husband is really making love to another woman. Our woman in question has simply married a man who reminds her of her mother. Objection! you will cry. The man has an appendage called a penis which the mother, unless she had reconstructive surgery following her pregnancy, did not. But isn’t too much being made of the penis in an age when sex change operations have become so sophisticated and readily available. Granted the Supreme Court is unlikely to include vaginoplasties with the issues it undertakes to rule on when it considers the constitutionality of Obama’s health plan. For good or bad sexuality has become an intellectual and even ideological affair. Yes biology is involved, but it’s the brain rather than the genitals that is calling the shots.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Teed Off

Yes John Updike played it, golf that is and the likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama play golf, though Hillary Clinton would not be able to gain membership  to the venerable Augusta National Golf Club, whose hosting of the Masters has come under attack for its male only policy. Though the Times recently reported on some rare changes in golf's protocols ("Change 267 Years in the Making: A Tweak in the Rules of Golf", NYT, 10/27/11), Golf is the direct opposite of Occupy Wall Street to the extent that it, perhaps more than any other sport, epitomizes the spirit of laissez faire capitalism and of the status quo.Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism could easily be re-titled, The 18th Hole and the Spirit of Capitalism. Golf courses are where the robber barons of today network with other robber barons. From the caddies whose job it is to carry a golfer's bags to the steppinfetchit locker room attendants and rigid dress codes that are strictly enforced in opulent club houses, golf radiates a hive mentality. The scrappy immigrant who has worked his way up the ladder lands at a golf club where he is treated with a deference usually accorded to royalty. It’s no wonder that most golf clubs exude a pomp that is reminiscent of Buckingham palace. Sure there are public courses which cater to those who are not members of these exclusive clubs, but let’s face it, that’s not what we mean when we talk about golf. Golf courses have little if nothing in common with the asphalt oasis, the basket ball court, or even  tennis, whose effete precincts have more effectively been infected with the virus of democratization. Even the apparatus of golf reeks of privilege with the heads of the drivers, the so called woods, covered in soft velvet, velour or leather hoods that give them the cache of Faberge Eggs. If there ever is a revolution that topples the power elite, golf will likely be the first and only sport to go. OK there’s polo which is played  in Palm Beach, but it’s got too few adherents to make a dent.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer

Austrians trying to speak English are gris for the comic mill. There are Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famed malapropisms and Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno, the fashionista.  And then there is the surface old world charm. Who would have believed that under Schwarzenegger’s affability masked an adulterer or that Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary General was a Nazi. Michael Sturminger’s The Infernal Comedy : Confessions of a Serial Killer tell the story of Jack Unterweger the Austrian serial killer and journalist turned celebrity  (whose was freed after international protests by well known figures like Elfriede Jellinek and others)  Sturminger has created an opera starring John Malkovich as the character of Unterweger on an author tour promoting his Confesssions and  bastardizing  English in the process. Magazines become maggotzines, Wikipedia is Vikipedia, “because,” one of Sturminger’s favorite words becomes “becawse.” Interestingly Malkovich isn’t really part of the opera unless you call his stand up routines a recitative. Rather he stalks the orchestra which renders bits and pieces of romantic Mozart, Vivaldi,  Beethoven works in which Sturminger’s sopranos play Unterweger’s jilted lovers. The operatic crescendos are in stark contrast to Malkovich’s deadpan in which he makes pronunciamentos like “I want to be someone and would rather be a killer than a no one.” Malkovich’s Unterweger has an Asberger’s like disorder but like a lot of disturbed people also has something to say. He’s a human triple entendre in a polyphonic setting. We experience this the moment we walk into the Opera House at BAM to find the orchestra on the stage and not in the pit. Is this a recital,  rehearsal or symphony that has been mistakenly billed as an opera or has the task bar on our computer been mistakenly moved to the side or top so that we are viewing the screen of reality upside down? One wonders if Alban Berg, the great Austrian composer of Wozzeck were alive, what he would have done with the story of Unteweger’s life?

Friday, November 18, 2011


Lars von Trier is a party pooper. Dunderheads don’t you get it? The whole performance at Cannes was a set up. It’s Melancholia played right before our eyes. Here he is in the limelight at Cannes, creator of Dogma, lionized with Kirsten Dunst, his star at his side, and he reprises the role she's just played in the film. He makes anti-Semitic remarks and finds himself banned from Cannes. Similarly Justine, the character Dunst plays, throws her whole life away, rejecting her marriage and the employer who has just given her a promotion to art director, at the agency at which she works— remaining loyal to the spirit of her depressive mother (Charlotte Rampling) who has instilled in her a deep and abiding hatred of life. All of this mind you while Wagner’s famed Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde plays again and again and again, underscoring the death in life which constitutes what amounts to a passion or calling for her. The lighting is spare and real and so is the message that that there is nothing, no transcendence, no life beyond the aberration known as existence—nothing except, art. The initial montage sequence is a homage to Bergman’s Persona. In Persona you are dealing with an actress who’s had a psychotic break. Freud defined melancholia as a response to loss which includes a lack of interest in the outside world. The close-ups of Dunst’s face in the early montage of Melancholia evince the shrinking from the will to live characteristic of the condition Freud describes. The  planet on a collision course with earth that constitutes the second movement of the film is called Melancholia, but it’s as if the catastrophe had already occurred to Justine before the collision ever takes place. She is suffering about something which has yet to be, a brilliant little touch on von Trier’s part  (there is another particularly brilliant directorial touch in the little piece of wedding cake on Justine’s face that precedes the breakup the marriage on the very night it’s begun). The parallels with Persona continue in part two of the film which, along with the collision, is devoted to Justine’s sister Claire. If Justine is afraid to live, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is afraid to die, but like with Bergman’s nurse and actress the roles switch and then with the big ball of destruction called Melancholia hovering overhead, Justine is exultant. She is finally in her element. As the world comes to an end, Justine becomes a latter day Grand Inquisitor, The Grand Facilitator, helping her frightened sister and nephew to die.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Paris Journal: Kusama

Self-obliteration is one of the themes of the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the Pompidou. But the expression should not be confused spiritual notions which have to do with the diminishing of the ego. Quite the contrary, the exhibitionism that pervades the psychosexual odyssey that the show describes is a response to the artist’s fear of the loss of self.  Kusama, a Japanese born, abstractionist was also known for her performance art pieces involving estheticized forms of streaking. The curious thing about seeing many of the videos of Kusama exposing herself and participating in body art happenings from the 60's, is that they, in fact, don’t seem dated at all. There is a whole psychedelic and hallucinogenic aspect to Kusama’s polka dot paintings and installations with their obsessive  and repetitive style that partakes of what neurologists call perseveration. And seen in historiographical context of her life or what the German sociologist Max Weber termed Beruf or calling, they are dramatic distillations of the central conflict of her existence which is reminiscent of Camus’ famous statement that the only meaningful philosophical question was suicide. Pathography is plainly not the intent of the current exhibit, but it’s hard not to see the artist’s repressive upbringing and her early awakening to Japan’s nuclear tragedy as driving forces in both her work and the mental illness that has plagued her all her life. Happily or unhappily Kusama eventually ended up committing herself and now in her 80’s still continues to produce work at the Tokyo institution in which she lives.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Paris Journal: Leurs tresors ont une ame

Leurs tresors ont une ame, “their treasures have a soul,” is the title of the show about the Maori at the musee du quai Branly. It’s reassuring to know that the culture wars are alive in this iconic Parisian location across from the Seine and footsteps away from the Eiffel Tower. For the show in question essentially documents the tortured relation between  the Maori and  the government of New Zealand which goes back to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 where the Maori translation of governorship was turned to sovereignty by the Crown. Cultural imperialism and assimilation are two subtexts in an exhibit that ostensibly documents the survival of a culture based on whakapapa or  the interconnectedness of animate and inanimate objects in a world that was changing around them. The exact relation of western influences within the historical time frame presented is curiously absent in the displays, though the exhibit’s very title connoting as it does “the ability to choose one’s own destiny” implies that a way of life which has indeed earned a respected place in the culture of New Zealand society still finds itself in some way imperiled. It's interesting to the think about questions pertaining to a minority in the capital city of a country, where the majority finds their centuries old style of life imperiled by the influx of immigrants from former colonies that still bear the scars of centuries of imperialism.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paris Journal: Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso...the Stein Family

The Steins, Leo, Gertrude, Sarah and Michael were patrons not investors and in that regard, like their counterparts the lesser known Cone sisters from Baltimore, played an enormous role in the lives of the artists whose careers they cultivated. Cezanne was not a household name when Leo Stein purchased his first Cezanne from Vollard, Cezanne’s famed dealer (whose portrait hangs in the Cezanne and Paris show at the Musee du Luxembourg). Everyone always points to the tremendous connection between Picasso and Gertrude Stein epitomized in Picasso’s iconic portrait of Stein from l906 now hanging in the Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso…the Steins Family at the Grand Palais, but from a cultural point of view it’s significant that an eccentric family of Americans, assimilated Jews of means, fostered the development of the early twentieth century modernism which became the calling card of French culture. The bust of Stein by Jacques Lipchitz from l920 and the portrait by Picabia from l937, which also appear in the show, exemplify Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence as it applies to the plastic arts. The little audio widget given at the Stein show also pointed out the debt the Picasso painting has to Ingres’ Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832) on exhibit in the Morgan Library in New York—which is another way of underlining the fact that this monumentally extensive show devoted to the Stein collection is really also a focal point for numerous historical and esthetic connections past and present. Gertrude had studied with William James at Radcliffe. Leo, who was himself the author of a book called The A-B-C of Aesthetics, had also been part of the circle that included Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry. Fry had offered the notion  of  “pure form,” as a way of understanding Cezanne’s revolutionary esthetic. Whether you go backwards in time towards Renoir who Leo would champion after Alice B. Toklas came to live with Gertrude at the Rue de Fleurus or forward to Gertrude turning her attention to Juan Gris and Picabia, two artists represented by another renowned dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, all roads seem to lead to the Stein family and the central role they played in the history of art, esthetics and thought.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dead Birds

Dead Birds, the first of series of films by Robert Gardner the artist/ethnographer currently being shown at Film Forum, concerns the bellicose Dani tribes of New Guinea. The film, which itself was shot over 40 years ago, is a paradox to the extent that it presents a pre-Adamic world devoid of shame that is at the same time characterized by very modern seeming forms of ritualized aggression. Robert J. Flaherty’s classics Nanook of the North  and Man of Aran are early examples of  this kind of artistic ethnographic filmmaking. But one wonders if self awareness lurks in the even more primitive characters on which Gardner fixes his lens. To some extent the filmmaker preempts this matter by adopting the omniscient authorial voice and the question is one of attribution? Do the filmmaker's subjects experience emotion in the westernized way that the narration describes? Cultural anthropology and ethology, the study of animal behavior, and in particular aggression, both come to mind in watching this beautiful film, filled with lush and at the same time horrific landscapes and events (such as the death and cremation of a child).  Every society has it  peculiarity and supposedly advanced societies have their tribal qualities while a primitive society like the one Gardner records can seem to be performing a Beckett play in which violence has an absurdist edge. The battles that film documents call to mind religious rites (in which Gods are appeased by scores being settled) and also curiously our own culture’s obsession with competitive athletics. One difference between Dani culture and that of the West, is the marked lack of ambition, with no tribe attempting to do anything more than achieve equilibrium. There are no Napoleons, Ganghis Khans or Sun Tzus with theories on the Art of War. On the other hand what is uncanny is that the Dani rituals, in the end, are reminiscent of our modern concept of nuclear deterrence, in which the job of  each cold warrior is to make sure that the other doesn’t get ahead. People who suffer from OCD will also identify with the magical thinking by which the tribesmen attempt to ward off ghosts. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Paris Journal: Being and Nothingness

Walking in the rain in Paris after being pickpocketed in the Metro brings to mind the title of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous  L’Etre et Le Neant, which was the bible of existentialism. You have come away with your being intact, having been artfully dispossessed of your wallet and yet you have nothing. None of the creature comforts are available. You can’t buy or eat anything and since your bank card has also been stolen there is no money to be obtained from the ATM’s which now become a taunting presence, as your stomach starts to growl. Since you now have no dinner reservation to worry about it’s interesting to think about Sartre in comparison to another philosopher Martin Heidegger whose Being and Time was the bible of phenomenology. It’s curious to ponder the fact that Sartre and Heidegger were both concerned with the same thing, being. You don’t have to have to read either of these formidable tomes to think about them, especially considering the fact that you haven’t eaten. Sartre was obviously talking about being as it manifests itself in a universe where there is nothing, ie no God, no intrinsic order, no parameters in which to contain chaos and Heidegger was thinking about being too,  but, if you believe you can tell a book by its cover then Heidegger was interested in considering being under the aspect of time. And what happens over time? Death. You are walking the rainy streets, hoping for some miracle by which your wallet will pop up out of nowhere with your affluence consequently and miraculously restored when you remember reading that Heidegger believed we live an inauthentic existence unless we are aware of the imminence of death.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chef of the Year

The worst thing about Mario Batali mentioning Hitler, Stalin and bankers “in the same breath” (“After  Chef’s Hitler Remark, Bankers Change Lunch Plans, NYT, 11/9/11) is the reminder that Time Magazine voted Hitler and Stalin Men of the Year in l938 and 1942 respectively. It’s also a reminder of what Time once was, a part of  the fiefdom of the conservative  Henry Luce. According to the Times, Batali’s problems began when he joined a panel of movers and shakers including Brian Williams, Anita Hill and Jesse Eisenberg to publicize the “Person of the Year Issue.” Ordinary folk who want to unload their piggy banks to get into redoubts like Babbo and Del Posto will now find it that much easier— now that Wall Street is twittering itself hoarse You’d have thought Batali were Joe Paterno or worse Jerry Sandusky the way the gang who brought you credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and John Corzine indignantly responded to being compared to tyrants. How can you compare selling someone securities that you yourself are betting against to the kind of atrocities perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler? The answer might be found in digging out your previous issue of the Times with its piece on the atrocitologist Matthew White who has written a book entitled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s l00 Worst Atrocities. Truth be told Batali himself was contrite. The Times quoted a statement issued by one of his spokes folks in which he said, “It was never my intention to equate our  banking industry with Hitler and Stalin, two of the most evil, brutal dictators in modern history.” How can Batali expiate his sins.  Like Lindsay Lohan, of course, by working in a soup kitchen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paris Journal: Pickpocket

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket depicted the inner world of a thief. Such artistic empathy is what makes for an edifying cinematic experience at the Cinematheque Francaise. However, when you are in Paris and have your wallet pickpocketed in the Metro, as is such a common occurrence that it’s become a rite of passage for tourists and inhabitants alike, the esthetic qualities of such loss take second place to feelings of rage and violation— followed by the realization that one must spend hours on the phone with varying banks, credit card companies and government agencies in order to restore stolen documents and make sure they are not used for fraudulent purposes. Godard’s  Breathless  also comes to mind. Nothing like watching the final scene in which  Jean Seberg hovers over the body of the dying Belmondo on a Paris street at some revival house in or out of France on a rainy afternoon. Alas, the criminal, as existential hero in French novels and films, becomes something entirely different when confronted in real life. In Greek Tragedy you have your deus ex machinas who restore order The Parisian pickpocket is a devil ex machina,  a god of unruliness, inflicting little physical harm, but working almost surgically to remove all the feelings of tranquility and timeless beauty that Paris has to offer.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Paris Journal: Cezanne and Paris

The Cezanne and Paris show at the Musee du Luxembourg is dramatic and simple in many ways. Cezanne was a good friend of Zola’s and was urged to come to Paris by the writer. The show documents the potent influence of Zola’s realism on the nascent imagination of a great master whose work would eventually go beyond realism and even impressionism. When we speak of post-impressionism we can't but think of Cezanne so it’s dramatic to see paintings like  Les Toits de Paris” (1881-2) with a classic and almost iconic view of the Paris skyline counterposed to a painting  like “L’Eternel Feminin ou Le Veau d’or” (1877) with its break from classic perspective. Hitchcock made cameo appearances in his films and here you can see Cezanne’s bald pate amongst the gallery gazing on the lusty ideal of femininity that the artist portrays. Naturally since it’s a Cezanne show there are plenty of apples and portraits too-- those of  his wife and his famed dealer Vollard, for example. The antimonies of figuration and abstraction are also juxtaposed with those of urbanism and nature. The artistic world of Paris obviously had its allure for Cezanne, but the conclusion one must make on viewing a show explicitly centered on Cezanne’s relation to Paris was that the artist found his real home artistically and spiritually in the rural world of the provinces, in particular Provence.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Jewish Writer in America

The New York Review of Books recently ran the first part of a previously unpublished essay written by Saul Bellow in l988 entitled “A Jewish Writer in America.” In the first section of the essay which appeared in the October 27th issue of TNYRB, Bellow recounts how he incurred the wrath of the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem when he described himself as an American writer then a Jew. “Scholem immediately placed me among those German Jews who had done everything possible to assimilate themselves…” Bellow recounts another discussion with the Israel novelist S.Y. Agnon who insisted “that the proper language for a Jewish writer was Hebrew” and paraphrasing Agnon remarks that “One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul… And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.” Bellow quotes the first line of The Adventures of Augie March in the essay, "I am an American…." And then later on goes on to expound on the subject of the outsider, “meteque” in French, quoting Anthony Burgess who says, “If we are to regard Poles and Irishmen as meteques, there are grounds for supposing that the meteques have done more for English in the twentieth century…than any of the pure-blooded men of letters who stick to the finer rules.” Bellow points out that Burgess is talking about Joyce and Conrad and then goes on to enumerate, Babel, Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Kafka, Svevo, Naipaul, Pasternak and Nabokov as examples of outsiders who have shaped “modern literature.” The essay is wonderfully simple and complex at the same time, simple in the introduction of concept of the “American writer and a Jew” which got Bellow into so much trouble about with the venerable Scholem (whose letters to Walter Benjamin, with their dichotomization of Zionism and socialism, iterate a variation on a similar theme) and complex in the way he spins the tale of his own artistic development. Rather than either immigrating to Israel or returning to the World of Our Fathers, he chose to remain an outsider in an adopted culture. An outsider can be a victim, either through circumstances beyond his or her control (genocide) or through collaboration, in which he or she hides his identity for survival (assimilation). Bellow chose another path allowing himself to be swept along by the tide of great polymathic modernists, who exulted in their metic or outsider status.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Papandreou's Trojan Horse

German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy probably thought they’d be basking in glory at the G-20 summit in Cannes. After all they’d stood tough and rightly figured they’d made the Euro banks an  offer they couldn’t refuse, bargaining for a 50% payout on outstanding Greek debt. The one loose screw turned out to be the Greeks. It was a little like the old Trojan horse that had worked for the Greeks 4000 years before. The motto might be don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The shaky Papandreou government unwittingly produced its own Trojan horse just as the clock struck midnight and Cinderella was reduced to tatters in the form of a referendum. The people would have to approve the deal. Papandreou knew his fun loving Greeks were never going to approve a program which deprived them of eros, in the broadest sense of the word. The proud Greeks were not going to have Europe holding their fate in its hands, in a way that was not dissimilar to where the Versailles Treaty had left the once equally proud Germans. So what would have been the upshot or downside as it were? Greece defaults, forswears the Euro and departs from the EU to become a Third World country, leaving the Euro banks holding the bag and the world wide economy in a shambles. For now the referendum idea has been tabled.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

John Corzine aka Icarus

Everyone wants to know why John Corzine, former senator and governor of New Jersey, former senior partner at Goldman Sachs made the colossally bad decisions that brought down the fall of MF Global a company that traded derivatives. The buck should have stopped at Corzine, but his ratio of borrowing to equity was approximately 40-1 and he was betting on the spectacularly volatile Euro debt as if there were no tomorrow. In one sense he wasn’t totally bonkers. As Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in his DealBook column, “In truth Mr. Corzine’s bet may still prove to be correct. Many of the Italian and Spanish bonds that Mr. Corzine bought…are still trading at 98 and 99 cents on the dollar…But Mr. Corzine’s bets also relied on short-term funding and given the skepticism in the market, counterparties quickly ran for cover.” (“It's Lonely Without the Goldman Net” NYT, 10/31/11) Okay there was solid thinking mixed with some gambling and the carpet got pulled from under the former Democratic golden boy who’d only recently received another rude awakening in the upset he endured at the hands of Chris Christie. Maybe the answer goes back to his accident in 2007. Here was another instance in which the man felt himself insulated by power from the vicissitudes of fate. The then governor had failed to wear a seat belt and was severely injured. Hubris is the Greek word for this kind of narcissistic megalomania and Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wings made of wax, was the mythological embodiment of such financial over extension. Though Corzine suffered greatly, he wasn’t chastened by his accident. He didn’t get the message. Icarus had a father named Daedalus and Daedalus had the cunning to create the labyrinth in which the minotaur was trapped. So is there hope the proteges of Corzine from MF Global and elsewhere will look back further to storied predecessors who relied on simpler value based theories of investing?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tintern Abbey

Holiday Inn Express creates the same environment everywhere. From a purely theoretical point of view, truly low budget travel would make it apparent that everywhere is the same and there is no purpose going anywhere  That’s the genius of Holiday Inn Express. There’s the same steamy pool area with the same screaming kids and scolding but indifferent parents, the same smelly rug in the inconsequential fitness center, the same mass produced buns in the breakfast nook with its pancake maker. One of the things to do at Holiday Inn Express is to go to the breakfast nook after it closes. The breakfast nook at Holiday Inn Express exudes a particular feeling of the sublime when the food’s been removed. It’s a little like the ruins Wordsworth described in his famous poem Tintern Abbey. And then there’s the unchanging décor of the rooms. Holiday Inn Express is the only redoubt where you can ask to change your room and end up with exactly the same room, even though you have physically moved through space. Unwittingly Holiday Inn Express has solved a problem of quantum physics which has baffled scientists for years: how can a particle occupy two places at the same time. Of course Holiday Inn Express is dealing with people not particles. This is a problem the staff at reception will unlikely be able to resolve during the length of your stay. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXIX: The Yiddishe Grail

The Holy Grail is what the Knights of the Roundtable sought after. Like the shroud of Turin and the very notion of transubstantiation it represented an attempt to get closer to the body and blood of Christ. If the chalice that Christ drank out of has iconic significance for Christians then the deli occupies a similar place in Yiddish folklore. The deli now an endangered species has become the object of a new crusade by a whole new generation of Jewish professionals who attempt to get closer to the World of  Our Fathers, the Alter Cockers, by eating the food they ate in similar establishment where old Frank Sinatra songs are still piped into the restrooms. One such establishment, which could easily apply to the city of New York for iconographic status, is the Mill Basin Kosher Delicatessen at 5823 Avenue T in Brooklyn. As you can imagine Avenue T is way out there, near the end of Flatbush Avenue, in fact. It’s a schlep, but well worth the crusade. The pastrami at the Mill Basin is as biblically lean as the matzo ball soup is light. They have the Jewish version of the wonton known as the kreplach. And there’s stuffed derma or kishka, which is matzo meal and schmaltz encased by cow or sheep intestine and kasha varnishkes for the faint of heart or those who wish to protect theirs from attack. It may be hard to imagine eating a food named for a part of the body that is so essential to speech. For those who are not used to it tongue may seem a little like ordering mouth, but it’s a cold cut whose essence creates no philosophical quandary for aficionados who eat it on rye with Russian dressing. Pickles half and full sour, cole slaw and even macaroni salad are the manna that introduces all meals at this mecca of Jewish cuisine.