Friday, September 29, 2017

Magnitudes of Finitude

Zeno’s paradox might be rephrased as slow and steady wins the race. But have you ever pondered magnitudes of finitude? For instance at the end of Achilles’ famous race with the tortoise, the distances become increasingly tiny, almost non-existent. In reality Achilles would have won, but under the mathematical or philosophical precept that Zeno invoked, Achilles can never win. From a profound point of view Zeno’s paradox exemplifies stoicism, since it invokes a form of stasis that flies in the face of the notion of so-called progress and gain. To hell with wanting more of everything faster. But one can also look at the few moments at the end of the race between Achilles and the tortoise as a metaphor. Age is inversely proportionate to finitude, as the amount of life remaining to any individual decreases with each passing year. In youth life seems eternal and almost infinite, thus the expression youth is wasted on the young. But how does one countenance  a changed state of affairs where life could end next week or next year? Do you behave exactly the same as you would if you had all of life ahead of you? Of course no one is immune from finitude. Anyone can be struck down at any moment. But from an actuarial point of view your chances of oblivion are always on the rise. With each passing day, do you still run the business the same? Are your moral imperatives unchanging? Or do you decide to dispense with all the formalities and devote the rest of your life to the satiation of every wish and desire you’ve ever had? That’s the dilemma  confronting, Wantanabe, the hero of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live, l952)-- who's dying of cancer? In an early Walpurgisnacht he throws himself into hedonism, but then at the end of the movie he makes a turn around, devoting himself to helping others. In the last scene which is one of the most touching in the history of cinema, the dying man sits on a swing in a park he has created for children, as it snows. To call Wantanabe a stoic, is an understatement. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017


You don’t hear much about an early Elia Kazan film called Pinky (1949) these days. It concerns a light skin black woman (Jeanne Crain) who can pass for white. Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore both played supporting roles and all three actresses were nominated for Academy Awards. Even the title of the movie is odd since pink isn’t a color you usually associate with the product of mixed marriages. The theme of labile identity and an individual of one ethnic background passing for another was central to the earlier Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) also directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck, as a reporter posing a Jew in order to write an expose of anti-semitism. Plus ca change, plus  c’est la meme chose. Bigotry, racism and racial profiling are still issues, particularly with regard to black males and their interactions with law enforcement. Former attorney general Eric Holder has recounted how he had been stopped by police, once in Georgetown on his way to the movies and twice on the New Jersey Turnpike ("Holder recalls encounters with police," The Washington Post, 7/16/13). But what's the difference? While discrimination is ubiquitous in our current world, it’s not legal. There is, for instance, the Civil Rights act of l964 passed during the Johnson administration. The l967 Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia (dramatized in the recent movie Loving)  over- turned anti-miscegenation laws.  But there's even a reverse kind of discrimination occurring on college campus where overreacting in terms of triggering could get a movie like Pinky into trouble. How can a white director depict the plight of blacks or a non-Jewish director deal with the problems of “restriction?” Was Shakespeare qualified to write Othello or for that matter The Merchant of Venice, whose Shylock has become such a stereotype that the character’s very name has become a synonym for one who lends money? Today thought and free expression are under attack. While it’s illegal to discriminate against a person in terms of their religion, race, sexual affinity or gender affiliation, you're no longer free to express your thoughts for fear sensibilities with be ruffled. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What's Wrong With Enmeshment?

The family therapist Salvator Minuchin coined the term “enmeshment” to refer to families where there’s so much other orientedness that individual growth is curtailed. In a recent Times Op Ed piece ("When Life Asks For Everything,"9/19/17) David Brooks points to a significant dichotomy between “The Four Kinds of Happiness” modality which ultimately aspires to a kind of self-forgetting and Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” whose contrastingly highest level lies according to Brooks, in "experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.” So considering the stakes, what’s wrong with being 
enmeshed? Why is enmeshment a pathology? Melody Beatty famously wrote Codependent No More, a primer for the recovery movement. But what about a countervailing volume, Codependent Yes More. It would be like the difference between The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital. Self-actualization derives from the romantic agony and fundamentally proposes a paradigm for which there’s no closure. When does the striving stop and how can the needs of others ever be accommodated amidst all the restless self-seeking of the atomized individual? Ibsen’s A Doll’s House notwithstanding, aren’t the demands of pleasure and excellence what’s really killing modern day marriage? A sequel to A Doll’s House recently ran on Broadway. However, can we really be certain that the eponymous Nora was that much more happy once she left Torvald? Autonomy is the condition of modern cosmopolitan life. Yet perhaps its more apt to say the existence lived by the contemporary men and women is different rather than necessarily better.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Final Solution: Dotards Anonymous

Kim Jong-un's speechwriter, translator or spin meister has a great command of the English language. After one of Trump's recent threats, Kim was quoted as calling the American president a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard." Earlier this summer North Korea responded to Trump’s threat of ‘fire and fury” with the very adult sounding  ‘a load of nonsense’ ("North Korea calls  Trump's threat of 'fire and fury' a 'load of nonsense," Politico, 8/9/17). The Times story about the "dotard" exchange went on to point out that  the Korean word that translated to “dotard” was ‘neukdari’ — a lazy, useless and demented person.” ("Kim Jong-un called Trump “a Dotard.” What Does That Even Mean?"NYT, 9/22/17). The significant piece is how expressive in an arch, almost arcane way the North Korean spin machine is. While Trump plays to his followers with what is essentially the talk of swaggering bar room brawler, (calling his adversary "Little Rocket Man"), Mr. Kim is made to look like one of those swashbuckling characters on Game of Thrones, whose words redound with the grandeur of the seasoned, albeit somewhat aristocratic, warrior. By contrast, Mr Trump could easily quality for DA, Dotards Anonymous. If you suffer from road rage you might be able to relate to the exchanges that have been going on between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. A guy is tailgating you so you let him pass and then roll down your window at the traffic light and make a comment about his mother. He calmly asks you, “why are you talking like that?" The worst response he resorts to are words that are synonymic with “dotard,” But his self-possession is disconcerting and you feel like you would have taken a step back, if you weren’t stuck in a car seat and couldn’t move. Once you get back on the highway, you wish you hadn’t said anything since there’s no escaping him. He tailgates, then pulls in front and stops short, causing you to hit the brakes. His command of the wheel is as impressive as it is of the English language.

Monday, September 25, 2017


Aren’t there enough mysteries in knowable things? Whole industries have sprung up from the quest for the unknown and the unseen. Religion with its temples, churches and mosques is one of them. Of course in his fight against indulgences Martin Luther attempted to purify one aspect of the quest— which lies in absolution. Max Weber distinguished between the sect and the church in his discussion of what he called the “routinization of charisma” and there are still religions (early Christianity was one) that seek to create a closer relationship with divinity in which fervor overshadows invisibility. Practical spirituality is the keynote of the quest that’s found for instance in Quakerism and the Recovery movement. In the realm of psychology the notion of an unconscious is predicated on a force that’s defined by its inaccessibility to the reasoning areas of the brain. Repressed thoughts end up in the unconscious. In terms of the brain itself Descartes set the stage for dualism in which consciousness or mind itself is a property that exists outside of the brain. Depth psychology makes sense to the extent that a lot of the things people do are irrational, but the notion of the unconscious wouldn’t stand up in court and many neuroscientists today take the monist approach (towards consciousness itself) which looks at thinking as an organic and material process that’s similar to eating, ambulating or having sex. It’s fun to imagine parallel universes in which over the infinity of time and space, a monkey could type out all of Shakespeare’s plays, but in reality monkeys may be more interesting for what they tell us about maternal attachment, a la the experiments Harry Harlow performed at the University of Wisconsin during the 50’s.