Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Burke’s Peerage Pyongyang Edition

Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters
Kim Jong-un the son of Kim Jong-il and grandson of Kim Il-sung and newly appointed successor to the North Korean leadership (his stepbrother Kim Jong-nam was passed over when he was caught trying to visit Tokyo’s Disney World), may have learned some lessons from Fiorello Laguardia, the legendary mayor of New York who read comics to children over the radio during a time when his country, like North Korea, was under fire (and to whom Kim Jong-un, also pudgy and diminutive bears a slight resemblance). Like his ill-fated stepbrother, Kim Jong-un also likes Disney, but he expropriated Disney characters to curry popular support and also undoubtedly to cheer up Pyongyangians the way Laguardia once lifted the spirits of New Yorkers. Jong-un also got hooked up according to a front page piece in the Times (“That Mystery Woman in North Korea? Turns Out She’s First Lady,” NYT, 7/25/12).  Ri Sol-ju is the lucky young lady and what better morale builder could the young leader have, particularly in the light of his last failed rocket launch, which has caused some commentators to question his virility (“North Korea’s Performance Anxiety,” NYT, 5/5/12)? Sol-ju according to the Times was spotted wearing “a trim black suit in the Chanel tradition” and she showed up at “the inauguration of an amusement park” in a “fashionable polka-dot jacket.” The Times piece cites “analysts” who claim that “Ms. Ri’s fashion sense…appears to be part of the building of a youthful new image; for years North Korean women were pictured only in traditional billowing dresses or Mao-style work clothes.” Sound like the difference between Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy? In any case, the marriage naturally makes one think about the next heir to the dynasty and what his name will be. First name has to be Kim, but after that all bets are off. If you take the “un” literally, the dauphin could be Kim Jong-deux. There is no doubt that the prospect of a new heir is a naming opportunity which could bring needed revenue into coffers of the impoverished country. For instance someone like the hedge fund operator Boaz Weinstein, who held the profitable side of the infamous London Whale, might prefer to have a child named after him rather than a hospital wing. Kim Jong-Weinstein? It’s sonorous enough, but might be too Jewish sounding for a future leader of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

The city of Chengdu is a significant venue in Alison Klayman’s film about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei,  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry During the film Ai Weiwei makes a public appearance at a restaurant where he and his associates film police functionaries who are trying film and silence him. Wang Lijun, the chief of police of Chongqing who blew the whistle on the ill-fated Bo Xilai sought refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu and it’s the city where a plant making products for Apple was cited for abuses of factory workers. Thus Chengdu is assuming an almost mythic status, a lesser though more updated Tiananmen Square, where the economic (Apple), political (Bo Xilai) and cultural problems (Ai Weiwei) of modern China coalesce. Ai Weiwei became a controversial figure after he repudiated the 2008 China Olympics and its stadium, the famed  "bird’s nest," which he helped design.  Next came the Szechuan earthquake where he publicized the doublethink which characterized the government’s response to the tragedy involving poorly constructed schools. One of his art works, “Remembering” from the exhibit “So Sorry” which was displayed at the Haus der Kunst in Munich is composed of 9000 backpacks, which memorialize the thousand of students who died. As Klayman portrays him Ai WeiWei is an outsized figure, a master of agit-prop, who produced an exhibition in the year 2000 entitled Fuck Off.  Ai Weiwei has assistants who execute all his works including one which is composed of 100 million porcelain sunflowers. But as portrayed by Klayman, Ai Weiwei is curiously retrograde, a kind of artistic Jerry Rubin or Abby Hoffman (who himself wrote a pamphlet called Fuck the System). If Ai Weiwei didn’t have the opposition of a repressive society, what would the substance of his art be? He’s both a master of the social media, like Twitter, and a product of it. The Chinese government was and is the Larry Gogosian to his Damien Hirst. The film makes Ai Weiwei out to be rather clever. However one wonders if the authorities weren’t one step ahead of him. The movie alludes to how the artist performed a useful function showing how far Chinese society had come (in allowing a controversial figure to gain prominence). Once they’d made their point they quickly levied a huge fine and silenced him. Corinna Beltz’s Gerhard Richter Painting is a film about a totally different artist, an abstractionist whose art eludes any of the political issues that pervade Never Sorry. However, the two films are oddly similar to the extent that they exhibit the modern artist as super media figure and promotor, a maker of commodities who becomes a commodity him or herself. The Chinese have developed enough liberty (at least from the economic point of view) to beg the question of when they will have freedom. That’s the profound question Ai Weiwei’s persona and by proxy Klayman’s film explores.

Friday, July 27, 2012

An Old Criterion

What do you think about quoting Henry Kissinger addressing a group of fellow conservatives? The June New Criterion features Kissinger’s remarks at “the inaugural Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society at The New Criterion’s 30th Anniversary Gala in New York City on April 26th, 2012 (“The Limits of Universalism," The New Criterion, 6/2012)  Those who hate The New Criterion should remember that T.S. Eliot, the author of a wonderful essay about the impersonality of the artist, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” was the editor of The Criterion after which The New Criterion is ostensibly named. For Eliot haters, this fact will only fuel fire over The New Criterion’s often procrustean traditionalism. The talk is an attempt to adjudicate what Kissinger calls “a family quarrel” between neoconservatives who aim to import democracy and Burkean conservatives who take a more gradualist approach.  “For Burke,” Kissinger remarks, "society was both an inheritance and a point of departure” and he goes on to further quote Burke who argues that it’s better to follow a cautionary path that “leads us to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect which cannot be attained without tearing to pieces the whole contexture of the commonwealth.”  Kissinger points out that Burke  “sympathized with the American Revolution because he considered it a natural evolution of English liberties” and “opposed the French Revolution, which he believed wrecked…the prospect of organic growth.” Even though he’s quoting Burke, the tone is admiring and it’s odd at this late date to be making value judgments about something which next to the Russian Revolution is a virtual primer in Hegelian dialectics. But Kissinger invokes the same Burke quote about acquiescence twice in his speech and he also uses Burke’s argument as a way of distinguishing the organic approach it avers from "Realpolik” or the supposedly idealist or value orientated approach that some of his neoconservative colleagues support. Which brings us back to Eliot and tradition. Turns out Eliot and Burke had lot in common.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Confucius Say

“Confucius say” was a favorite way that Charlie Chan would introduce his aphoristic solutions to crime. In an op-ed piece in The Times (“A Confucian Constitution For China,” NYT, 7/10/12), Jiang Qing who is identified as founder of the Yan-ming Confucian Academy and Daniel A. Bell who is editing his forthcoming book, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future offer the Charlie Chan approach to politics. Qing and Bell essentially suggest that the pressure on China to democratize is misguided. They argue that “the will of the majority may not be moral” and that “when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority.” Surely these points about democracy are not limited to China and their  argument is in line with thinkers like the British philosopher Derek Parfit who tries to bridge the gap between Hume and Kant in his book On W hat Matters. Qing and Bell propose "a tricameral legislature" composed of a House of Exemplary Persons, a House of the Nation and a House of the People. The House of the Nation and the House of the People, sound a little like the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Exemplary Persons, which smacks of divine right, is where the problem lies. It’s nice to think that we could all agree on what is right, but when it relies on giving authority to any one religious group or order, no matter how benign that order might be, we are back to the very reasons why the founding fathers insisted on the separation of church and state.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

La Comedie Humaine

The recent sale of the apartment occupied by Huguette M. Clark at 907 Fifth reads like a Balzac novel. Clark who actually spent the last years of her life in a special suite of rooms at Beth Israel Medical Center was the inheritor of a copper fortune and left according to the Times “a $400 million estate, two contested wills and no direct heirs.” (“Big Ticket/ Sold for $25.5 Million," NYT, 7/20/12) The apartment 12W was bought by Boaz Weinstein, the Hedge fund trader who held the other side of the now infamous London Whale in which JP Morgan’s lost its shirt. In the light of the continued problems with the trade (on which Weinstein undoubtedly profited handsomely) and the Libor scandal (in which JP Morgan was also implicated) the Times ran a front page picture of the once highly touted and now beleaguered JP Morgan chairman Jamie Dimon. Fortunes come and go as do major Manhattan residences. Recently the 15 CPW penthouse of former Citibank honcho Sandy Weill was sold to another heiress Ekaterina Rybolovlev, the daughter of the Russian potash billionaire, Dimitry Rybolovlev (whose mines have created sinkholes in the town of Berezniki) for a record breaking $88 million—which makes the $25.5 million Weinstein paid for his place at 907 Fifth seem like a pittance.  Actually Huguette Clark owned two other apartments in 907, 8E and 8W. As the Times also reported  Quatar’s Sheik Hamad bin Jaber al-Thani's $31 million offer for these “was turned down by the co-op board  because he wished to combine them.” Could the co op board’s fear about the residual effects of Arab spring have had an effect on the rejection? Balzac would have undoubtedly been fascinated by the lineage of acquisition with respect  to all three of Clark’s apartments and how they came to reflect the politics and economics of their time. But he would also have been interested in the mysterious inhabitant of these auspicious residences and how and why she recused herself from history.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Beach

Watercolor (“Bad Dream”) by Hallie Cohen
The famed Italian writer Cesare Pavese was the author of a novel called The Beach, which contains the following lovely line, “We were at the age when a friend’s conversation seems like oneself talking.” Pavese later would commit suicide, but then there were The Beach Boys who wrote the classic Don’t Worry Baby, with its famous words, “Well it’s been building up inside of me/ For oh I don’t know how long…” And sandwiched between them in the 50’s The Wind by the Jesters, with it’s “when the cool summer breeze sends a chill down my spine…” Sargent was inspired by Venice. Music, literature and art have all owe something to the sea. There’s an old expression “children should be seen, but not heard,” which is less used in an age where we seek to empower children, but can’t we say the reverse for the sea? Should it not be heard rather than seen? It’s nice to pick up a shell and hear the ocean whispering its secrets but the actual sea is dangerous. It’s like they Scylla and Charybdis of recreation luring the intrepid adventurer to his or her death. Rip tides pull us out to sea and the sea magnetically draws depressives. Sylvia Plath might have ended it by sticking her head into an oven, but Virginia Woolf walked right into the sea and never came back. Beaches are filled with half clothed women who turn heads and  create neck injuries in glowering men. The famed l960’s CBS documentary Harvest of Shame, could easily spawn a sequel entitled Harvest of Melanoma, showing the effect of sun and sand on the human skin.

Monday, July 23, 2012

To Rome With Love

To Rome With Love has about as much to do with Rome as From Russia with Love had to do with Russia or Woody Allen’s previous film Midnight in Paris had to do with Paris. Nevertheless unlike Midnight in Paris whose chief claim to fame lay in portraying stock characters from both the past and present in a sit com setting, To Rome With Love is truly hilarious and inventive, particulary in two of its comic premises. The first concerns a retired impresario with a fear of death (Allen himself) who comes up with the out of the box idea of casting a singing mortician (Fabio Armilliato) in I Pagliacci. The only problem is that the mortician, whose life’s work involves “in the box” solutions, can only sing in a box, i.e. the shower. The ensuing opera house scene literally places the mortician in a shower on stage, with a scrub brush and soap running down his face, as he belts out his arias. But the coup de grace of To Rome is in casting Roberto Benigni as clerk who becomes suddenly and inexplicably the prey of Roman paparazzi. Benigni is dropped almost as quickly as he is discovered when the paparazzi alight upon an anonymous bus driver. There are other strands of plot in the movie which include a Michelangelo who falls in love with an American girl on her way to the Trevi fountain and a Leonardo who falls for an aspiring American actress who likes to quote Yeats and Camus. The movie is characterized by a number of these non-sequiturs that all ignite their own individual brand of farce. Penelope Cruz plays a prostitute, who is mistaken for the wife of proper young man from the provinces (and who in a wonderful piece of Berlusconiana seems to know every Italian businessman in sight) while the proper young man’s wife is swept off her feat by a famous Italian actor. There’s a little bit of Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, Amarcord  and 81/2) in To Rome and a big dose of Midsummer Night’s Dream  as the chaos dissolves and Allen’s cast of characters all land on their feet. 

Friday, July 20, 2012


Neoteny is a term used by evolutionary biologists to refer to the tendency of a species to retain juvenile traits well into adulthood. Stephen Jay Gould felt that neoteny was a morphological characteristic of home sapiens. But the term also resonates beyond biology. For instance affluent Americans experience a longer adolescence than their less privileged counterparts in other cultures. The responsibilities of marriage and career are often delayed since they're not totally necessary for survival. Affluence leads to choice. Because one has time and money, one looks for the best mate and the most rewarding career, with subsistence and concerns about the actual survival of the species becoming secondary to self-realization. Movies from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate to Todd Solondz’s recently released Dark Horse reflect a condition of surfeit that perpetuates regression and retards developmental growth. This is not to glamorize poverty or the plight of those who endure subsistence level conditions. It’s to recognize that the paradox of increased productivity is that it inevitably leads to a kind of entropy. The same attrition  occurs when people use computers and calculators which take away the ability to write, think and calculate. Homo Ludens, man at play, is finally so infantilized by his freedom that he loses the evolutionary sweepstakes, sharing the fate of once vibrant languages like Yiddish, Ladin and Ladino which whose existence is threatened from lack of use.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Oxymoronic Home Depot

Bed Bath and Beyond. Let’s analyze the name for a second. You wash up and go to bed. In order to implement these two tasks you need certain devices: a bed, a sink, a toilet, sheets, pillowcases and towels. Then there are the three S’s, shave, shit and shower. But what about the “Beyond” element. Is there an implication that these life processes will take us to the Great Beyond, in which case the store should definitely have an afterlife life section, with things like coffins, caskets and headstones—items which are not normally sold at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Or let’s take Home Depot. What is a depot? A place in which one stores things or from which one arrives or departs. We go to the bus depot to find the Greyhound. Home Depot is an oxymoron when you look closely at it. Home is the ultimate point of arrival, the place that travellers return to. Odysseus ended his odyssey by returning home unrecognized, except by his trusty dog Argos. Why would I want to go to a warehouse or a point of departure when I am trying to surround myself with things that make me feel at home? And then there is Staples, a store specializing in objects used in the work place or in school—notebooks, computers, pencils, erasers. You probably won’t find much carbon paper in today’s Staples since only a few eccentrics and dyed- in-the-wool old school writers use Royals. But why Staples, why not Desk, Book and Beyond, or Clips, or Hard Drives? Is it because the kind of things one purchases in Staples are the staples of life? Does it have to do with the staple, an invention which once helped people to bind things together and that is also becoming an anachronism in our drive towards paperless files. Bed, Bath and Beyond, Home Depot and Staples have replaced the mattress stores, hardware stores and stationary stores of the past, but if you take the names seriously they are all selling something which they don’t carry, which doesn't exist or doesn’t make sense.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hit & Miss

The Times’ Mike Hale gave a lukewarm review to Hit &Miss, the English made television series “about a hit woman who’s a preoperative transsexual” calling it an “unsuccessful attempt to graft ‘The Crying Game’ onto ‘Party of Five.’" (“She’s Living A Double Life In More Ways Than One,” NYT, 7/10/12). In terms of shock value the scene Hale describes “of the impressively trim body of Chloe Sevigny, and a plainly displayed penis” may rank with Sevigny’s famous fellatio scene with Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny. Hale takes the series creator Paul Abbott to task for self-consciously trying to combine “two projects—one about a hit man and one a about a transsexual mother.” Actually this new television series reads like an essay on surrealism. At the very least it has three of the central tenets of the surrealist project: aggression, humor and sexuality. In dreams such elements can meld seamlessly. The incongruity of the two sources of inspiration, family life and assassination, only strengthens the strategy. Back in the sixties the British created an immensely popular television series, The Avengers, a spy series that was basically a surrealist dream. Hopefully Hit & Miss, whose very title exudes  Lautreamont’s famous definition of beauty (that the surrealists glommed onto) as the  “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,” will live up to its British predecessor.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Yankee in King Arthur’s Vestibule

Benjamin Franklin Sands
There is something truly regal about deploying to the throne that sits next to the coat of armor in the lobby of King Arthur Flour (aka The Baker’s Store) in Norwich Vermont. King Arthur Flour dates back to l790 and by l870 Sands, Taylor and Wood was the name of the company that created this building block of cake--which is still advertised as “never bleached” and “pure white as nature intended. The history of the company is recounted in a promotional video entitled “King Arthur Flour: History in the Baking,” readily accessible on You Tube.  And the lineage of the giants who started King’s Arthur including Benjamin Franklin Sands is hung on the wall opposite the throne. While Benjamin wasn’t an inventor like his namesake, nor a signer of the Declaration of Independence, this serious bearded chap looks like— well the CEO of a l9th century flour company. The King Arthur outlet in Norwich in many ways resembles a Williams Sonoma with its cookware and mixes and free samples of everything from maple syrup jelly beans to Himalaysian rice with garlic and Swiss char. But there’s also a baking school on the premises and for those who are interested in cooking the whole experience is like seeking the Holy Grail of a certain kind of baking. When you’re done with King Arthur, cross the Connecticut river over the Ledyard Bridge to Hanover, New Hampshire. There you’ll find, "The Epic of American Civilization," in the basement of the Baker Library at Dartmouth. The mural, by the Mexican artist who was a contemporary of Diego Rivera, depicts the evolution of the Americas from Aztec times through the advent of industrialization, though King Arthur Flour is not cited.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Chronicles of Castration: John Wayne Bobbitt

John Wayne Bobbitt became an iconic figure in the history of male castration fantasy in l993 when his wife Lorena cut off his penis and threw it out of a car window. Naturally Lorena didn’t actually castrate John since she didn’t cut off his testicles, but it is almost universally accepted that severing a penis is tantamount to castration and even worse (though the castrati who sang soprano parts in 16th century  church choirs might have testified otherwise).Needless to say the Bobbitt incident had a nefarious effect on the dream life of many males since Bobbitt was attacked during a drunken slumber and to quote the poet, “Lorena hath murdered sleep.” For many American men the only experience of a severed penis prior to the Bobbitt incidence came from walking though Greek wing of the Met and seeing the dismembered statues. Apparently Bobbitt himself was no worse for the wear. His penis was miraculously found and reattached and he went on to exploit the incident by performing in adult films. John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut is probably one of the most brilliant titles in the history of porn and Bobbitt also went on to star in the movie Frankenpenis. Bobbitt also had a music career as member of the band The Severed Parts.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Another Life

Photo: Carol Shadford

At the very beginning of  “Another Life,” the Paul La Farge short story that appeared in a the July 2nd New Yorker, the author places Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, into his protagonist’s hand. “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys,” the protagonist (identified only as “the husband”) quotes Rousseau as saying. “Man feels the same impulsion, but knows that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” The husband takes the Rousseau with him down to the bar of the hotel where he and his wife are staying and the volume functions as an ironic leitmotif as La Farge’s character proceeds to cheat on his wife with the comely and literary young bartender. Indeed neither the husband nor his wife, who shows up only to run off with a character described first only as a “sleazebag” (and is then given the name, Jim LaMont), turns out to be free. What we have is an irrational universe of the kind that Nietzsche might have described in Beyond Good And Evil or The Birth of Tragedy. La Farge’s tone is taciturn, resigned, even stoic. His protagonist is revealed to be a writer who is not reading the Rousseau because he wants to but because he has to teach it.  “I’m being compelled to read about freedom!” he muses. He describes himself to the bartender as someone who “writes short stories about the confusion of life and the unknowability of the heart.” When the bartender invokes Chekhov, the protagonist brings up Nabokov “with his unreliable narrators.” After the sex, the husband blacks out on a bench in a nearby square and the young lady who also eventually and significantly is given a name (as if her character unlike that of the husband is still in the process of formation) returns to her room and “starts working on a story.” Rather than Nabokov, La Farge himself is reminiscent of Chekhov. His current offering bears comparison to a sad, sweet Chekhov classic about another evanescent relationship, “The Lady with the Dog.” 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mickey Mouse Politics

                                  Korea Central News Agency via Reuters
Will Disney fare any better with the North Koreans then Yukia Amana and the IAEA or or even the U.S. Government? After the failure of their most recent rocket, they launched a series of Disney characters on Pyongyang television. Obviously the Disney Company owns the copyright to these creations, but the question is, how versed is the current regime in intellectual property law?  In a piece entitled “On North Korean TV, a Dash of (Unapproved) Disney Magic” (NYT, 7/9/12), The Times reported that “North Korean state-run television on Monday showed footage of costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of the leader, Kim Jong-un, and an entourage of clapping generals. The footage also showed Mr. Kim in a black Mao suit watching as Mickey Mouse conducted a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses.” If Disney does file suit against the North Koreans for copyright infringement, the question is, what tact will lawyers for the youthful leader Kim Jong-un take? Will the North’s legal team argue that the use of the characters and scenes from movies like Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an example of the kind of appropriation practiced by graphic artists like Shepard Fairey? Will the Disney citations be considered “fair use” under copyright law or part of a mise-en-scene that was justified as an admiring critique of American society? North Korean politics works in furtive ways and the whole Disney affair may go back to an earlier diplomatic incident involving Disney. As the Times piece pointed out Kim Jong-un has an older half brother Kim Jong-nam who got into big trouble with the folks back home when he tried to sneak into Tokyo’s Disney World on a Dominican passport.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


                                                                                Kino Lorber
Belief is a commodity and a sometimes coveted one at that. Certain parts of India manufacture gurus the way Manhattan produces real estate tycoons and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that some eventually invested in Manhattan real estate. Vikram Gandhi’s Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet, a documentary about a mock guru, is Moliere’s Tartuffe with a little bit of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There thrown in. Gandhi put one over in Arizona, a part of the country that attracts spiritual seekers, some of whom have come to tragic ends--like those who died in a sweat lodge--under the influence of a zealot named James Arthur Ray who eventually was jailed for his crimes. Nothing this invidious happens in Kumare to the extent that is it is a send up with a spiritual message itself. The fact that people saw things in Gandhi’s created character, just the way they projected themselves on to Chance or Chauncey Gardener (played by Peter Sellers in the movie of the Kosinski novel) is precisely the director’s spiritual and philosophical intention. Gandhi wanted “his followers" to find the guru in themselves. Happiness and even feelings of divinity are two by-products of belief and Gandhi’s unwitting subjects, who include a lawyer who deals with death penalty cases, a troubled woman leaving her marriage, a recovering addict, an acoustic theologist and the members of a sect who chant “kabam” and use vision boards, refuse to relinquish their belief even as Gandhi aka Kumare tells them “I am not who you think I am.” The film could easily have been a skit on Saturday Night Live, but the director gets his cake and eats it too. Satire can be revealing, but it is rarely edifying and instructive in a positive way. The idea an illusion can function as a mirror that is also empowering is almost visionary!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn"

Frank Kermode the British critic once wrote a book called The Sense of An Ending. Hollywood has always had script doctors—writers who producers go to in an emergency to deal with their ailing screenplays. And novelists have always engaged editors. For instance Hemingway and Fitzgerald both had Maxwell Perkins, though there are many novelists who might want to see a specialist who just deals with the problem of endings, a problem which has reached epidemic proportions in certain periods of literary history. Speaking of Hemingway, Times writer Julie Bosman points out that Hemingway told George Plimpton in a l958 Paris Review interview that he’d written 39 different endings to A Farewell to Arms “To Use and Use Not,” NYT, 7/4/12). Bosman’s piece appears on the occasion of the publication of a new edition of A Farewell to Arms which contains an appendix with all the endings. Bosman quotes Sean Hemingway, the writer’s grandson, who happens to be “a curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” as pointing out, there are 47. These endings are all to be found in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. In a piece on a new collection of Steven Millhauser short stories in The New York Review of Books (“A Master of the In-Between World,” The New York Review of Books, 7/12/12), Charles Simic writes “Hemingway once said that the best story he ever wrote contained just six words: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'” Sometimes non-sequiturs make great endings and considering some of the examples that Bosman’s article unearths one wonders why Hemingway didn’t include the precious words above instead of for instance No. 7, the truly prosaic “Live-Baby Ending" which reads, “There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.” What if Hemingway had gone to see an ending specialist or consulted with a critic like Frank Kermode? Perhaps “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” might have ended up being the ending of A Farewell to Arms. “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain,” was what Hemingway finally decided on. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

“Mr. Watson--Come here--I Want to See You"

The confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson is reminiscent of Alexander Graham Bell’s famous “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.” The utterance on March l0, 1876 ushered in the age of modern telecommunications and it was a reference point at least once during the Golden Age of Television when programs like You Are There, hosted by Walter Cronkite, dramatized great moments in history. We’ve come a long way baby, but Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, was hard put to provide a useful answer when asked on CNN the other day about what the discovery of the Higgs Boson will mean for the average Joe. He made some general points about the discovery of the Boson having importance for anyone who is interested in how the universe came to be, but it was hard to surmise how the discovery of the Boson would fare when compared to that of the phone. Take-out Chinese food and escort services are examples of two industries that could not subsist without the phone, but it’s unclear what industries will be improved or created by the Boson. Will the discovery of the mysterious particle have an effect on equally mysterious financial instruments like synthetic derivatives? In some way the discovery of the Higgs Boson, which has represented an investment of billions of dollars in research funds, is too big to be useful. As if to underscore this point, the Times’ Dennis Overbye repeated the same line in his coverage of the event, “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe,” 7/4/12) as he did on 6/19/12, “New Data on Elusive Particle is Shrouded in Secrecy.” Describing “a cosmic molasses” and the way it helps particles to get mass, he compared it to the way “a bill going through congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.” Only two words changed. In the original piece he used “moving” instead of “going through congress” and “gains” rather than “attracts riders.” When people start to repeat themselves, it usually means they have run out of things to say.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Vidkun Quisling
Mitt Romney may not really laugh but Gary Wills is really brilliant. Why has Wills never been nominated for elective office? And is he the potential number #2 man, the dark horse that Romney has been looking for? Perhaps you are smiling in the confused nervous way that people do when they are being confronted with nonsense. In his short piece in the June 21st New York Review of Books, “Why Is This Man Laughing?” Wills attempts to analyze Romney’s “non-laugh laugh,” as either a defense, an attempt to fit in, an offense, “comic rictus as a non-sequitur,” or as subterfuge. In his attempt to understand the laughter Wills invokes the author of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a seemingly logical step, that is probably sui generis in the annals of Romney scholarship. Even followers of string theory which gives eleven possible dimensions in which one could exist will find it hard to locate Kundera and Romney in the same universe. Wills’ reference point is actually not the novel itself but an essay entitled “The Comical Absence of the Comical (Dostoevsky, The Idiot).” Wills then attempts to account for Romney’s symptoms with the “etiology and taxonomy of senseless laughter…in examples of humorless humor in the defensive-aggressive response of Prince Mishkin to other people’s senseless laughter.” But it’s not Kundera’s analysis of Mishkin that provides the most stirring insight in Wills’ search for gold. It’s from an aside of Kundera’s about “a man standing uncomfortably in a crowd.” “I was seeing a person laugh who had no sense of the comical and was laughing only to keep from standing out from the crowd, like a spy who puts on the uniform of a foreign army to avoid recognition,” Wills quotes Kundera as saying. Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politico who seemed to be defending his own country, but was really a Nazi collaborator.  The London Times made a noun out of his behavior. Wills description of Romney’s uneasy laughter is that of the quisling who is trying to appear like one of his people, but whose allegiances lie elsewhere. The question is where?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Three Trailers

Mark Wahlberg is playing against a Teddy Bear come to life in Ted. Eugene Levy is an embezzler forced into a safe house run by a Southern Mammy (Tyler Perry) in Madea's Witness Protection and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold  Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Jet Li do not play celebrity competing chefs on Chopped but chop off some heads in The Expendables 2. It’s hard to tell a book by its cover or a movie by its trailer, but in a world of exceedingly listless trailers, these trailers are all a source of hope. The movies themselves are likely to be another matter all together. A smoking, drinking and  cursing Teddy bear who looks under women’s skirts, rags on his owner and even beats him up is definitely an imaginative invention to be reckoned with. The notion of the toy or puppet come to life is of course goes back to Pinocchio and is a staple of the fantasy and horror genres, but Ted is plainly a ribald comedy that will have to work hard to extend its high concept for ninety minutes. Madea's Witness Protection comes on heels of the death of Henry Hill, the famed Lucchese crime family lieutenant, who was the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The trailer’s success depends on the fact that Eugene Levy’s character could never be played by Ray Liotta who was Hill in the Scorsese film and the humor of the trailer at least depends on the fact that Levy needs protection from his protectrice. The very thing that makes The Expendables 2 a trailer worth seeing is precisely what will mitigate against its success as a feature length film. Thinly drawn stock characters and action sequences which require the use of stunt men usually don't sustain a narrative.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Philosophy's Flights

Photo of A.J. Ayer
In “Philosophy’s Flights” in last Sunday’s Review (NY Times, 7/1/12), Jim Holt asks “Is Philosophy Literature?” He’s talking about analytic philosophers, philosophers of language like Bertrand Russell and later Thomas Nagel, Phlippa Foot (of trolley problem fame), Harvard’s Hilary Putnam, Kwame Apiah, and Colin McGinn who all ultimately came to the fore as a reaction against the unverifiable propositions of metaphysics. Of course today there are philosophers like Derek Parfit whose On What Matters attempts to bridge the gap between the limitations of the subjective (utilitarian) mind and broader ethical considerations. By the way, Holt’s piece is a selection from a longer series called The Stone, which can be found on the Times blog. Holt answers his own question with a resounding yes but not before he makes the following qualification (in the longer version) which is reminiscent of those commercials for new urine flow medications on CNN that offer a list of disclaimers. “Today analytic philosophy has a broader scope then it used to...it’s less obsessed with dissecting languages; its more continuous with the sciences (this partly due to the American philosopher Willard Quine who argued that language really has no fixed system of meanings for philosophers to analyze). Yet whether they are concerned with the nature of consciousness, of space-time or of the good life, analytic philosophers continue to lay heavy stress on logical rigor in their writings. The result, according to Martha Nussbaum (herself a sometime member of the tribe), is a prevailing style that is ‘correct, scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid’—a style meant to serve as ‘a kind of all-purpose solvent.’” In this little passage Holt takes back what he giveth away and it’s funny that missing from his list is the ne plus ultra of all language philosophy A.J. Ayer’s wondrous Language, Truth and Logic which does for analytic philosophy what Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style did for grammar. Still there are two exhibits that Holt offers in defense of analytic philosophy as literature, Quine’s article “On What There Is” which Holt comments “can be read over and over again, like a poem” and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, a compendium of three Princeton lectures which don’t contain “a dogmatic or pompous word...and not a dull one either” that seem de rigueur for anyone interested in his initial query. And then there are the first and last lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus “The world is everything that is the case” and “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wasn’t Wittgenstein the master of philosophical haiku?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Larger Than Art

John McPhee writes about his editors in a recent New Yorker (“The Writing Life,” The New Yorker, 7/2/12). The piece actually centers around two subjects, money with respect to his Farrar, Straus &  Giroux editor Roger Straus (a scion of the Guggenheim fortune) and the attitude toward the use of the words “fuck” and “motherfucker” by two renowned editors of the NewYorker, William Shawn and Bob Gottlieb. However significant the manifest content, it’s only the window dressing for a more profound subject, which is that of the guru. Shawn in particular was a larger than life, imperious and mysterious personality, a short bald man whose particular form of self-invention probably owes a good deal to the mystique of the patrician literary world of mid-twentieth century America which The New Yorker’s Brahmin German Jewish esthetic epitomized—and perhaps to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Would writers pay court to such figures as Shawn or even Gottlieb today? Gordon Lish, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, whose harrowing writing workshops were recently portrayed in the Broadway play, Seminar, was perhaps the last of these cranky old men of letters. The current editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, for instance, is a hard working journalist himself, who displays none of Shawn’s antics. From the little one is able to glean he appears to be a product of the Enlightenment, at least in publishing terms, a John Locke to Shawn’s Edmund Burke. He gives all signs of being an empiricist and rationalist who would discountenance Shawn's brand of charisma. The art world of midcentury America had its own share of brilliant, tyrannical intellects, Clement Greenberg being the most noteworthy, who held sway over generations of artists. But democracy has always facilitated mercantilism, and while The New Yorker is not run by the aristocratic Shawn, it’s owned by the Newhouse's Advance Publications and one could argue that the gallerista Larry Gogosian holds more power over today’s art world than an intellectual like Greenberg ever could.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lives of Our Leaders: The President and the Intern

What does it feel like to be a White House intern and give fellatio to the president of the United States? Only a groupie who followed one of the great rock bands like Van Halen could probably answer the question, though the recent four hour PBS documentary Clinton indicates that the 11 years after the end of the Clinton presidency, the shockwaves of the incident have not been eradicated. This is not a matter of morality or consequences for either a president or an intern. Rather it’s a question for neurologists who examine the central nervous system and the question is, what is the effect of an enormous psycho-sexual event on the synapses, axons and dendrites which make up the pleasure centers of the brain. We know that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for so called executive functioning and that pleasure emanates from the amydala or so called mid brain area, but when a major historical figure unzips his fly and allows an oral sexual event to take place with someone who could only become part of history because of this event itself, then there is something causing the great historical figure and the person who is still just the equivalent of protoplasm to throw caution to the wind. Is it the actual distance between the pleasure centers and the areas that are responsible for morality, ethics and conscience that’s the problem? FMRI’s are able to track how the brain responds to varying kinds of stimulation. However, the problem is that to study such an event you would need subjects with unimpeachable integrity willing to don an apparatus in advance of the transgression--a tall order indeed!