Tuesday, September 30, 2014

“Off With Their Heads!"

One wonders if the higher ups in ISIS got their inspiration from Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll has the Queen of Hearts continually decreeing “off with their heads!" The ISIS militants are avid beheaders, not only in terms of the now infamous hostage videos, but in terms of how they keep their captive populace at bay. CNN aired some shots of a boulevard lined with impaled heads, taken by intrepid inhabits of the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is now considered the ISIS capital. Children sometime have nightmares from fairytales, but this is a nightmare come to life and thus is almost hard to conceive. One’s first reaction to the footage, which included some crucifixions, was to think of Halloween. Such an association is naturally a tragedy in and of itself since it makes the world into the interior of a tormented child’s mind. Think of the child soldiers in the Kony 2012 video that came and then vanished from the world’s stage. Shock can be like an endorphin rush and the barbarism is so extreme that the only way to process the information is to distance your self from it by relating it to fantasy literature. "Walking the plank" is even worse than waterboarding when you come to think of it. Captain Hook threatens this form of painful death in the Disney version of Peter Pan. But it’s just an animation, played in the background as screaming kids quaff down ice cream and chocolate cake at a birthday party.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Home Alone Redux

You can run but you cannot hide. No place seems to be safe anymore. The headline on the front page of the Times read “White House Intruder’s Past Raises Concern,” (9/22/14). According to the Times story, Omar Jose Gonzalez,  who "scaled an iron fence and made his way through the front door of the White House" had been apprehended and released after “he carried a hatchet in front of the White House.” Does it seem far flung to imagine an exchange where Mr. Gonzalez scales the fence and goes to the back door of the White House, ringing the bell and  exclaiming “delivery from ISIL!" Then there was the headline two days later, “3 Suspected French Jihadists Give Up After Botched Arrest,” (NYT, 9/24/14). This case demonstrates how difficult security can be in response to the terrorist threat. Apparently Turkish officials put three suspected jihadists on a plane back to France, but French security was waiting for them at Orly while they had already passed through passport control at Marseilles. The Times went on to describe how the three terrorists then tried unsuccessfully "to turn themselves in at a village police station, but the police were away on rounds.” Would it make sense for NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) to hire a private security firm to make sure that there are alarms on the front doors? The democratic way of life touts freedom and transparency, but what happens if ISIL simply walks into the control room and turns our own warheads  on Washington, Chicago, New York and LA? Actually there would be a precedent for this since ISIL are apparently already armed with caches of American weapons, abandoned by the Iraqi army. Charity begins at home runs the old saw and the same might be said of defending the world for democracy. Before Allied forces leave the house for the Middle East, hadn’t they better remember some simple things like closing and locking doors and remembering which airport captured terrorists will be arriving at?

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Fame Lunches

There is an obligatory and routine sanctimony to op-ed columns mourning the loss of the celebrity who didn’t make it. These antics usually last about a week in which the repetition becomes numbing and something more lurid (a football player delivering knock out punch tho his wife for instance) takes over. That was the case with Michael Jackson and more recently with Philip Seymour Hoffman. But just when one was about to lose patience with all the vapid and often self-congratulatory eulogizing, then came the venerable Daphne Merkin to the rescue, providing her own post-mortem for the actor on The New Yorker blog. Listen to this: “I can’t imagine I am alone in having found an almost preternatural youthfulness about Hoffman, as though he had never fully cast aside the boy he once was, alert to every slight. In any case, when I think of the actor, a line from a letter by Malcolm Lowry, author of 'Under the Volcano,' the ur-novel about the unslakable thirst for self-destruction, comes to mind: 'I am a small boy chased by furies,' Lowry wrote to his mentor, Conrad Aiken. I like to think of Hoffman in a heaven that’s a big swimming pool, held aloft by the buoyancy of the water, resisting nothing, chased by furies no more.” Daphne Merkin is a disappearing species. John Gross wrote a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800. Merkin is part of an almost extinct breed, the belle letterist. Neither academic, nor journalist, these essayists find their roots in a style, sometimes aphoristic, that goes back to Montaigne, in which everything high and low qualify as ingredients for a delicate recipe known as sensibility. Dwight Macdonald and Susan Sontag were two of Merkin’s storied predecessors. However, she is not only increasingly singular but sui generis within her chosen vocation to the extent that she has also created a reputation as a provocateur. She's the author of a collection of essays entitled Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations which contained an essay on her own adventures being spanked (“Spanking: A Romance”).  The controversy Merkin has created is both admirable and obfuscating to the extent that it camouflages a glorious talent for the iteration of states of being. Merkin has just published a new collection of essays The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes and the importance of HandbagsShe reads both books and the world like no one else. The Fame Lunches includes pieces on topics as varied as Michael Jackson (“Locked in the Playground”),  “The Unbearable Obsolescence of Girdles,” Henry Roth (“Portrait of the Artist as a Fiasco”)  and V.S. Naipaul (“Brilliant Monsters”). She upsets the applecart by beginning her piece on Michael Jackson’s pathology which she describes as representing “in his one tortured and talented being every conflict of identity imaginable--beginning with race and gender-- on the most astonishingly primordial level” in her own therapist’s office where she discountenances the accusations of pedophilia, saying “he strikes me as presexual.”  She employs a wistful irony in citing Milan Kundera’s erotic masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being in her search for an anachronistic undergarment, finally concluding “It was incontrovertible: where girdles had once reigned, rowing machines, ab crunches, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons now held uncontested sway.” No matter how exalted or banal the subject, Merkin never fails to underscore the phylogenic consequences of an ontogenic decision. On Henry Roth’s incestuous relationship with his sister she pulls out her full psychic artillery, “within the context of the violently dysfunctional marriage of their parents, and the generally xenophobic climate of the Roth household, the incestuous detour makes a kind of anthropological sense, as though an ingrained Jewish pattern of tribal endogamy had been taken to its logical conclusion.” Here Merkin takes over a role Lionel Trilling once occupied: the literary critic as psychoanalyst. One of her recurring themes is the price paid by those whose wounded existence leads to the creation of art (an idea famously dealt with by another great belle lettrist Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow). In the V.S. Naipaul (“Brilliant Monsters”) essay, Merkin deals with “the human wreckage” left by a man who inflicted great mental and physical pain on his wife and mistress respectively and wrote with what she calls “a wounded pen." Don’t miss this latest collection of Daphne Merkin's essays.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ultimate Fighting

Extreme Cage Fight War (photo: Ticketmaster)
Prize fighting is a metaphor for life. At least it’s one of the metaphors and it’s probably the metaphoric quality that accounts for its popularity. The same can be said about mixed martial arts, a sport which takes place in cages (the Ultimate Fighting Championship is significantly the name of the company that promotes many of these events) and jiu jitsu. Of  course other sports like football offer the same possibility for enticement through their potential to create empathy. How may times have you heard someone who is going to undertake a challenge refer to “carrying the ball?” But fighting requires an especially high level of preparedness and the combat is the most individual (outside tennis or mountain climbing) and brutal. You fight to the finish with a win sometimes rendering the opponent senseless. A prize fight is not like a cockfight since it’s ultimate goal is not the death of the loser, but annihilation is certainly on the table. The victory exhausts the defeated party and breaks his or her will. But if there is an animal quality to fighting it also exhibits some of highest elements of the human spirit to the extent that it represents an aspiration of the consciousness to overcome bodily limitations. It’s no accident that writers like Hemingway, A. J. Liebling, Mailer and most recently Joyce Carol Oates have all exhibited a fascination with boxing since those who are prone to articulate the lot of the creative artist frequently equate it with over the top challenges, which sometimes involve the sacrifice of life. Whether it’s the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea or the great white whale in Moby Dick, the person who attempts to emblazon his inner life on reality faces a Herculean and sometimes Sisyphean task. The only difference between the fighter and the artist is that the battle the artist is waging is more solitary. His or her opponent is the self. But the whole fascination with fighting as a metaphor poses still other questions. Is all of life a battle? Should people fight for the things they want the way some patients fight against cancer. And is full-fledged combat the best way to fight cancer--or depression for that matter? Leni Riefenstahl’s film was Triumph of the Will and it was a consummate piece of Nazi propaganda.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Prefer An Unmelancholy Dane?

Edwin Booth’s Hamlet
At the end of a Times Op Ed article entitled “Learning How to Exert Self-Control,” (NYT, 9/13/14), Pamela Druckerman quotes Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia as saying, “Melancholy is not one of my emotions. Quite seriously, I don’t do melancholy. It’s a miserable way to be.” Mischel was the author of the famous “marshmallow test” in which children were asked to defer gratification (and has written a book called The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control). Those who were able to defer gratification often did better in life. Druckerman quotes Mischel to the effect that “We don’t need to be victims of our emotions. We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.” But there are others who might disagree. Take the Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman who has written about the enormous role the irrational plays in human life and how people are ruled by unconscious drives over which they have relatively little control. Kahneman, for example,  has demonstrated the role of “loss aversion” in economic life. The work of the neuroscientists, Antoine Bechara, Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio and Steven Anderson, whose Iowa Gambling Task deals with emotion based learning, also appear to confute Mischel’s view. How easy or beneficial is it to discountenance melancholy? Sure there are people who have an endlessly positive and productive worldview. But sometimes this kind of behavior is known as denial. And those who embody it represent a juggernaut of wishful thinking and rational constructs (products of their prefrontal cortex no doubt) that denies the complexity and beauty of what it means to be human. Was Hamlet’s problem simply that he didn’t control his emotions?