Friday, August 30, 2013

Appointment in Samarra

photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
“Lisa Robin Kelly, 43, Actress on 'That ’70’s Show’ Sitcom’" read the Times obit (NYT, 8/15/13). The accompanying picture displayed a blond haired actress, remarkable enough to have according to the Times description, “played Laurie, the promiscuous older sister” on the sitcom and remarkable enough to have had a career whose provenance went back to shows like Married with Children, Murphy Brown and The X-Files, but unremarkable in a way. The picture looks like a number of comely actresses who were head turners in the beginning of their career and whose talent didn’t extend far enough beyond their pretty faces to sustain them. But Kelly also had other problems. “I had lost a baby,” the obit quoted her as saying. “As a result of that, I lost it—I lost everything, and I was abusing alcohol.” According to the Times, she'd been “arrested at least three times since 2010, once for driving while intoxicated and twice for domestic abuse.” John O’Hara’s first novel novel, Appointment in Samarra, concerns a self-destructive character named Julian English who embarks on a three day tear after which he finally kills himself. But here is the Somerset Maugham epigraph from which the book derives its title: “There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said ‘Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he went to Death and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?' ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ Death said, ‘It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bonfire of the Vanities

Puyi,  the last Emperor of China
According to an article in the Times there are seven things Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, wants to eliminate (“China Takes Aim at Western Ideas,” NYT, 8/19/13). Amongst the items included in the mysterious Document No. 9, quoted by the Times are “western constitutional democracy” and “universal values” of human rights.  Plainly Xi Jinping and other higher ups in the party want to have their cake and eat it too. “Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a ‘mass line’ campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline,” the Times remarked, going on to quote Document 9 to the effect that “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere.” Interestingly the trial of the disgraced Bo Xilai, who represented a more leftist stance has not contributed to a lessening of the party’s hold over China. As the Times went on to comment, “Relatively liberal officials and intellectuals hoped the ousting last year of Bo Xilai, a charismatic politician who favored leftist policies, would help their cause. But they have been disappointed.” The irony is that the family of Xi Jinping family has managed to amass a substantial fortune during his rise to power (“Billions in Hidden Riches For Family of Chinese Leader," NYT, 10/25/12) and if Bo Xilai trial represents a purging of an even more radical element then Wang Lijun, the reputed lover of Mr. Bo’s wife Gu Kailai (“Dollop of Romance is Added to Intrigue at Former Chinese Poltician’s Trial," NYT, 8/26/13) Xu Ming and Mr. Bo are hardly the Gang of Four. Xu Ming (“China Boss’s Fall Puts focus on Business Ally,” NYT, 8/21/13) a billionaire and one of the richest men in China, channeled enormous amounts to Mr. Bo in order to that he might live in the style to which he’d become accustomed. So what Document 9 really celebrates is not a leadership that is returning to the ideals of the Long March but the ideals of latter day robber barons, the kind of “masters of the universe that Tom Wolfe documented in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The equation is a familiar one and ideology free, of high level connections equalling preferential treatment. In the name of the party, Xi Jinping is amassing a degree of economic and political power that's reminiscent of the great dynasties that ruled China before anyone had ever heard of Communism or Das Kapital

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The End of History

In an interview with Foreign Affairs (“The Polish Model," May/June 2013), Radek Sikorski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, remarks, “The twentieth century was a roller coaster for Poland, regaining independence after World War I, then losing it and getting ethnically cleansed by Stalin and Hitler together and the 45 years of struggle for democracy. Hopefully, we’ll produce less history than in the past.” Back in the sixties the sociologist Daniel Bell wrote an influential tome called The End of Ideology and then in the 90’s Francis Fukuyama created a stir with his The End of History and the Last Man. Like Sikorski’s prediction about Poland, are the great powers at the threshold of a new Age of Aquarius? Despite the turbulence in the Mideast, is the modern world on the verge of a period of ideological calm, in which McCluhan’s Global Village will be a practical every day reality? Will terrorist ideologies go the way of colonialism, fascism and communism? Will connectivity become like the water that killed the Wicked Witch of the West? Sikorski’s locution is that of the modern European state united with contemporaries by common currencies and political objectives. Will the EU eventually become a world union or WU, with the Euro giving way to the Global? Will the information age and the internet create one union, without passports or borders, where publishers no longer produce histories, at least the kind which recount battles for  ethnic hegemony, economic domination and political control? 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An American Tragedy

Nestled at the bottom of page 25 of Friday’s Times right below a much larger article reporting on the Clinton’s Sagaponack rental (“In Hamptons Again, Clintons Get to Work on Their Vacation,”NYT, 8/23/13) was a piece about one Jason Lee, a “Goldman Sachs Banker Charged with Rape"(NYT, 8/23/13) to quote the exact headline. It was not exactly an odd placement, since both pieces deal with happenstances amongst the rich or the famous in the Hamptons. In fact the house where the rape purportedly took place and the summer rental taken by the former president and former secretary of state are only one town apart. The piece about the Clintons would have done Tom Wolfe proud as it was a cataloguing of connectivity. One particularly juicy tidbit had to do with the fact that the Clintons “usually sample the menu of Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton, which is owned in part by Jason Weiner, who is the brother-in-law of Mrs. Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin." The Times piece described a “Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton foundation fundraising gala at Topping Rose House—a new hotel-restaurant ooperated by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio” and attended by Ronald O. Perelman, Mort Zuckerman and Peter Kalikow. Bill Clinton was also credited with an appearance at the writers artists softball game and the article noted that the Clintons have been known to visit Stephen’s Talkhouse, a music venue in Amagansett where Bo Diddley, Van Morrison and Paul Simon have played and where the power went out to the chagrin of “their secret service detail” during a 2011 visit. While all this was happening Mr. Lee, the Goldman Sachs banker provided the Dreiserian backdrop, having posted $20,000 bail on the rape charge. Remember, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was based on news story which took place in another playground of the rich. While the Clintons occupied a six bedroom house on 3.5 acres with a private path to the beach, the house Mr. Lee and his wife rented was a more modest four bedroom affair which commanded a price tag of $33,000 for August through Labor Day. The article revealed that the woman Mr. Lee is accused of raping is 20 and that he lives in Tribeca. An article in The East Hampton Star (“Source: Accused Rapist Hid in Range Rover,” 8/24/13) reported that Mr. Lee’s wife, Alicia, was in New York at the time of the incident.