Friday, June 29, 2018

Life is Like a Pyramid

Pyramid at Giza (photo: Nina Aldin Thune)
Life is like a pyramid. The early years constitute the bottom in which there's a level playing field. You exist with numbers of other infants. Every year the terrain narrows until as with mountain climbing, if you are lucky, you arrive at a high point where the air is thin and there are few who have made it. The perils of ascending most peaks become greater at those heights. The final ascents are often are characterized by steep and dangerous grades, similar to the pitfalls some individuals face due to sickness, accidents or other acts of God, which can interrupt a climb before it has even begun. Of course, it can be disconcerting to see your fellow hikers falling along the wayside and sometimes there's an aftershock like the concept of après coup in psychoanalysis when the reality of what’s actually happening only makes itself apparent long after it’s occurred. It’s not only death too that takes it’s toll, but from the heights you can’t fail to miss the specter of wreckage left by those who have experienced pain and loss. You witness the misery which befalls some and not others, who have been struck down by their circumstances. They might have barely survived the calamity that characterizes their lives, but they're the wounded who you tend to, yet are forced to leave behind as you continue along your way.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Homo Ludens

There is ludic which refers to play. A Luddite, a person who resists technology and innovation. Luddite derives from someone named Ned Ludd who flew off the handle and broke some stocking frames. HIs name was appropriated by those who had a gripe with industrialization. It's doubtful that Ludd would have taken to Marx’s early writings (the 1844 manuscripts)  which deal with the kind of alienation that derives from the division of labor--if he had lived long enough to read them. But there's a direct connection between ludic and Luddite if we remember that homo ludens is man at play and the title of a book by the Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga (and that Ludens, by the way, is the name of the well-known brand of cough drops). There’s of course Yvetushenko the famous Russian poet and the nonsense contrarian rhyme “not to Shenko.” But what about outstinct? If there is an instinct which is a natural or biological drive, there must be the opposite which accounts for all that does not derive from the ANS or autonomic nervous system. If you are not depending on your instincts you certainly must fall back on your outstincts, which comprise everything else, consciousness, mind and the kind of thinking upon which reason depends emanating from the cerebral cortex. Instinct is usually associated with what is known as lower brain or limbic activities, where emotion resides. Words at play, logos ludens?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Piece of My Heart"

Erma Franklin (1967)

The English diva Joss Stone did  "Piece of My Heart" and did a version with Beverly Knight who also did her own impassioned version. Etta James did one along with Aretha Franklin. The most famous "Piece of My Heart" is probably that sung by the raspy voiced Janus Joplin but perhaps the greatest is that performed by Erma Franklin at The Soup Kitchen in Detroit back in 1992. Erma's eyes are literally burning with passion and her back up singers and instrumentalists all exude that look that music people evince when they're in the middle of an iconic performance. Watch Jerry Butler "the Iceman" singing  "Only the Strong Survive." "I want you to come on, come on, come on and take it," Erma croons. Even though you're riveted to your seat you have the feeling that you're the one who is about to take off. It's as if it's your song and it makes you want to sing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pornosophy: When Camelot Was Occupied by Bonobos

It's hard to accept the concept that consciousness is just like breathing and that it’s not some superior attribute that separates man from animal. Yes Descartes famously stated, "cogito ergo sum," but he was a dualist. Though consciousness is still regarded as a mystery by some philosophers and neuroscientists, most accept it as a purely material process. "Disenchantment" was a word Max Weber used to to describe scientism replacing a belief in the ineffable and invisible. The phenomenon is roughly the equivalent of the kind of insult that occurred when Copernicus and Galileo put forth the then heretical supposition that the sun not the earth was the center of what we now know to be the solar system. When you regard consciousness simply to be another attribute of homo sapiens behavior and an extension of traits represented in species further down the food chain, it’s easy to understand why mankind has gotten itself in a fix. Humans think they're better than animals because they possess a highly developed language cortex, but they're really inhabiting the same territory as their country cousins in the animal kingdom. When you open up the newspaper and curse the dunderhead du jour for his or her latest pronunciamentos, you're simply suffering from a problem of expectations. There’s been no great decline, no worsening since the great Adamic fall. If you read Mimi Alfford's Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath, you'll hear how JFK watched as his White House intern gave a blow job to one his pals. Camelot, it turns out, was occupied by bonobos.

Monday, June 25, 2018


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the title of the book. When asked about what she has in common with the iconic Notorious B.I.G. in the film, RBG, the outspoken chief justice says that the two came from Brooklyn. The answer seems dismissive but probably says a lot. Though the two differ in their styles, they’re both fighters. If you shy away from hagiographies of either rappers or chief justices, you might miss Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary, which would be a mistake. “My father did the cooking,” one of Ginsburg’s children comments, “and mom did the thinking.” What separates the movie from being just another feminist broadside is its wit and charm, both of which can be ascribed to Ginsburg herself. Nowhere is this more apparent then in the clips that detail her relationship with Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice who became her close friend despite their ideological differences. If Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband, the tax lawyer M.D. Ginsburg, testified to a reordering of traditional roles, then her relationship with Scalia with whom she enjoyed the opera amongst other things is a testament to a collegiality and equanimity of spirit that’s all but missing from public life today. The film records Ginsburg’s one serious abrogation of responsibility when as a sitting justice she attacked candidate Trump for being “a faker"—a lapse for which she quickly apologized.  

Friday, June 22, 2018

Lost in the Googleverse

Google maps is one of the most blatant examples of how technology creates an attrition in human abilities. The computer with its modern keyboard has all but killed cursive writing and similarly Google maps has eradicated not only the sense of direction (in those who were born with it), but the ability to figure out and parse where one is and find clever ways out of situations in which one is lost. People now use Google maps not just for driving but for simple walking and errands around a city like New York. God forbid you didn’t have your iPhone you might have to ask someone directions for a street like Great Jones which is not part of Manhattan's symmetrical grid. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was the ultimate survival manual and one of elemental documents of the age of discovery. Outside of sextons and simple telescopes most early transatlantic sailors had to hone their capacity to navigate using both intuition and an awareness of natural elements. Today, traits which are developed through everyday use and trial and error have become so foreign that without the latest guidance device most travelers are thrown into a state of utter panic. Deprived of their devices, they might actually have to look for landmarks, study topography and maybe even stoop to taking a look around before deciding which way to turn. However, these are precisely the traits that have been lost in the Faustian bargain with modernity.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Pornosophy: The X-Rated Version of Plato's Republic

In a recent Times Op-Ed piece ("Can There Be Good Porn?NYT, 3/5/18), the actress Stoya, tries to create a moral category with respect to the forbidden. X-rated films transact in nudity and in the intimacies of human sexual congress of all kinds. With the exception of fables like the emperor’s new clothes, most people don’t have the opportunity to see deluded people who think they’re dressed when they’re not. As for the varieties of sex, there have always been dark cubbyholes where people could go to view tainted souls who would for instance engage in sexual intercourse with dogs. The title of Jake Tapper's novel about the McCarthy period, The Hellfire Club, alludes to such societies. “I’m invested in the creation and spread of good pornography, even though I can’t say for certain what that looks like yet," Stoya remarks." We still don’t have a solid definition of what pornography is, much less a consensus on what makes it good or ethical.” Plato and Aristotle both tried to define what constituted the good and in his dialogue the Ion Plato deals with whether dramatic performance reached its epitome due to skill or the presence of a divine spirit—an interesting notion when it comes to porn. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Are the attributes of famous porn stars like Stoya or her estranged former partner James Deen, a form of Grace. There's a food chain involved in most human endeavor and it’s easy to define crooks as bottom feeders and saints as those who have sought the greater good. But there are reversals. Ostensibly the crooks of porn would be seeking cheap thrills with the pornographic good guys being those who trafficked in the notion of catharsis. And yet who is to say that enlightenment isn’t to be found in some cheap loop of a gangbang, while the pornographic equivalent of The Republic—could that have been Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire?—isn't predicated on a lie? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Final Solution: The Age of Hyperbole

Nixon Giving Checkers Speech (Wehwalt)
This is the age of hyperbole. Perhaps it’s an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, but many people appear to be imitating the hyperbolic locutions of their president. Superlatives are ubiquitous. Everyone seems to be bloviating about the wonderfulness of whatever they're doing (even if it involves hating their president). Have you ever noticed that even though someone makes you cringe, you find yourself talking like them? Maybe you don’t pound your shoe or fist like Nikita Khrushchev once purportedly did (accounts differ) or talk in the mawkish tone of Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech, but it’s interesting how strongly held sentiments can be an equal opportunity employer and how a mode of discourse can be extricated from its content so that it achieves a morally neutral status. Such is the case with President Trump’s nomenclature in which the human condition is either the epitome of heaven or hell. Of course, Trump is the classic salesman. He doesn’t qualify the endorsement of his product. It seemed like he was characterizing his meeting with Kim Jong-un as a great success before it even occurred. Nothing had been agreed on (and to this day none of the specifics of any nuclear disarmament have been worked out). However, he was already issuing kudos to both himself and the Korean dictator under the theory, one would guess, that the juggernaut of positive emotions would take on a life of its own and thus enable him to close the deal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Deja Vu or Been There Done That

Madame Blavatsky
Déjà vu is a concept that's often touted by people interested in paranormal phenomenon. On the other hand it’s like spirituality in general. There are always materialized representations of purportedly mystical behaviors. For instance, those who believe there's a meaning and purpose to the universe often espouse the notion that everything is as it's supposed to be. Well if you’re a determinist which is a bona fide scientific position, you'll be in agreement. The concatenation of history, biology and psychology has produced a walking fait accompli. As for déjà vu just travel down Route #1 anywhere in America and you'll have the feeling you’ve been there whether you have or not. It’s the same Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. Nowhere is this state of affairs more egregious than on the internet. Datafication is everywhere. You’re presented with mounds of information and a seemingly infinite number of sources or sites. Yet there's a curious homogenization in all this preponderance of information. Porn is one of the prime examples. Porn Hub purportedly gets ten of millions of hits per day. Every possible fantasy is freely available. However, curiously, everything seems the same. The more  you look the more you feel you’ve already been there. Déjà vu is the new ennui.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An "As If" Personality Lives At Least 9 Lives

cover of first edtion
Have you ever felt that you were an “as if “ personality living a narrative you’d read in a book or seen in a movie. Identification is the whole point of classics like The Catcher in the Rye and what’s astonishing is the variegated personalities that are capable of seeing themselves in the story, people who have perhaps never even been to Manhattan and have never heard about the clock in the Biltmore and any of extinct milieu that Salinger alludes to in the book. Great art seems to cut a large swath in which people can find room for their condition. So many people see themselves in Chekhov and identify with the longings of say his Three Sisters, Masha, Irina, and Olga that one wonders if the playwright wasn’t at times bothered by the fact that people seemed to have expropriated his creation, paying little credence to the fact that it was his not theirs. One might not say the same thing about Titus Andronicus. Few people identify with serving someone’s children to them at dinner, but isn’t there a little bit of Anna Karenina and War and Peace in everyone. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But he might more accurately have said to many of his readers “Madame Bovary, c’est vous!” to the extent that a good portion of the books following comes from romantics who see themselves in the plight of its anti-heroine. When Brecht created the idea of the Verfremdungseffek or “estrangement effect,” he was attempting to give his audiences back their own reality rather than sweeping them up into an Aristotelian catharsis. The fact is, however, that a good many people who read books do so because they want, if only for a short period of time, to be someone or be somewhere else.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Conspicuous Ostentation

Rolls-Royce's Flying Lady (Rundvald)
Is anyone who buys a Rolls Royce or a Bentley an asshole.? William Burden, the financier, used to travel around Manhattan in a Rolls with his initials on the license plate, while Mike Nichols had a Mercedes whose license read "anomie." Thorston Veblen coined the turn “conspicuous consumption.” But this is a kind of "conspicuous ostentation" and some might say that Nichols was more culpable since he wanted his cake and eat it too. He was rich and talented which gave him license, one would suppose, to vaunt his superiority over others. Of course the possession of anything of value could be disparaged, from a nice house to a painting, but there are those who possess things for show and those of great means who do everything in their power to avoid the jealous eyes of others.There are fabulously wealthy individuals you have never heard of and then there was the story of the legal secretary who accumulated a fortune by simply executing the same stock trades as her bosses ("96-Year-Old Secretary Quietly Amasses Fortune, Then Donates $8.2 Million,"NYT, 5/6/18) No one ever knew she had money until she died and she left a good part of her estate to the Henry Street Settlement. But back to the flashers? What explains the desire? Is it the peacock strutting its feathers in mating season? Is it a statement of the wish to dominate and intimidate others? Will Mr or Ms. Rolls or Bentley get their way? By the way Mercedes Anomie would be a cool name for someone who was seeking to reinvent him or herself, no? Of course Mike Nichols and William Burden are both dead and perhaps Shelley’s "Ozymandias" provides the most fitting epitaph for their cars, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Final Solution: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

The current foreign policy of the United States is a little reminiscent of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. You might remember the l975 Judith Rossner bestseller, based on a real story, about a young woman coming to a tragic end barhopping in Manhattan’s singles scene. Usually an administration will come forth with a cohesive policy, with soubriquets, whether they be “the domino theory,” “spheres of influence” or “strategic containment,” which create parameters that both allies and adversaries can employ in negotiations. But the Trump White House has embarked on what feels like a series of one-night stands. First there was the love affair with Macron, which turned sour when the U.S. rejected the Iran nuclear deal, then the disastrous G-7 summit after which Trump found himself literally in the embrace of Kim Jong-un—on the rebound as it were. If the past antics of the North Korean regime are an indicator, the young despot will have his way with an old man, then blow him off, having achieved a coveted notch in his belt. He'll be the first North Korean leader who's actually been validated and recognized by a sitting American president. But for all his bravado will the American leader find that he falls victim to the three L’s having been loved, laid and left?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Final Solution: The Ice Age

So Tyrannosaurus Trump met Brontasaurus Un in Singapore. The perpetuation of the male dominated hegemonic order would ostensibly be the price to be paid for peace. A pair of despots dividing up the spoils. Sound familiar? Two dinosaurs who have each other’s back with the fate of the world, or at least Asia, in their back pockets. In the l9th century the same game was known as colonialism. Now that we’re plunked down firmly in the world of post-colonialism, it’s good to remember that when the Ice Age came about the dinosaurs became extinct. In the meanwhile, there are all kinds of piddling little issues like the Mueller Investigation, Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen on one side and the fact that despite the teary-eyed affection Dennis Rodman displayed for the North Korean leader on CNN, Kim Jong-un is purportedly the murderer of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, his half brother, Kim Jong-nam and by proxy Otto Warmbier amongst others. But nothing really matters when you've got two big Pterodacytl paterfamilias exercising The Art of the Deal. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What to Look For In Meditation?

A lot of people meditate because they’re seeking enlightenment and they’re disappointed when they don’t achieve satori. The question is, what is enlightenment? It’s like God. There are anthropocentric notions of god and godhead and then there is Godwhich if such a notion exists may be totally separate from any conception one might have of it. If you free yourself from preconceptions of enlightenment, you might find that meditation is significant in terms of what you're not receiving, with the subtlety of the experience the very essence of what's to be parsed. Very simply in meditation you're sitting still rather than moving as you do in most  other activities of life. In addition, you're not interacting with anyone or anything. In the age of social media where the very concept of being unconnected, even in sleep, is increasingly being challenged, this can be an extraordinary, even life changing event. Meditation is a practice so you can undertake it without any guarantee of results and it's the absence it allows that's epiphanic. There's something elemental to doing nothing, to neither giving nor receiving. And that's one of the states that mediation allows the sitter to achieve.

Monday, June 11, 2018


In The Myth of Sisyphus  Camus wrote “There is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Camus himself committed at the age of 46 in a car accident, but his famous line is most often seen as a distant homiletic. You envision hands being raised in a classroom, as students rifle through underlined pages of the essay. Yet when the act hits you squarely in the face as it’s done this past week with the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, it’s hard to take a philosophical attitude. Suicide is a little like death itself. No one can know death unless you’ve been there and once you have crossed the line, you’re no longer going to be able to report back. Is suicide a message or simply a search for ultimate relief? Is it an act that's rationally taken or is the possibly copy cat nature of Bourdain's act, for instance (both Spade and Bourdain had daughters and both died by strangulation), the result of insanity, temporary or otherwise?  Obviously there’s no generalizing, but the fact that the two cases in the news represented particularly successful people who had every reason to live and people to live for makes it all the more difficult to understand. Severe depression can be an almost ineffable juggernaut which crushes the spirit, but the average person finds it easier to understand an existential predicament, such as that of the cab driver who recently took his own life ("A Taxi Driver Took His Own Life. His Family Blames Uber’s Influence," NYT, 5/1/18). The 104 year old Australian scientist who journeyed to Switzerland to die also is a case that is on the surface more easy to absorb (“David Goodall, 104, Scientist Who Fought to Die on His Terms, Ends His Life,"NYT, 5/10/18). Still in all, whatever the motivation, the reasons for this pulling down the blind, turning off the switch or lowering the curtain is something which suicides take to their graves.

Friday, June 8, 2018

#MeToo or Not To

What hash tag to use if you are opposed to the #MeToo movement? #NotMeToo or #MeToo—Not? You’re going to lose your job, your friends and most likely your significant other. So why not get your message to the right audience before you lose everything? You don’t want your Tweet to be for the birds. #NotMeTwo immediately stops the reader in their tracks. It’s like someone belching in your face. You’re going to recoil from the blatancy of the gaffe. On the other hand #MeToo—Not is very cagey. #MeToo is so ubiquitous that even if you don’t agree with the movement, you welcome the familiarity the way you do the McDonald’s “M” when you’re cruising into a stranger mall. #MeToo is our lingua franca. People may not like things about it and they may have had their problems over the treatment of Al Franken or Garrison Keillor, but in general it’s become the meat loaf or the cherry pie (as in H. Rap Brown’s “violence is as American as cherry pie") of liberal America. You don’t really care who anyone is voting for as long as they have a #MeToo posted outside their house next to the alarm company sign. It’s like the plastic security card used to get by the turnstiles of an office building. #MeToo is your “Advance to Go (Collect $200)” from Monopoly. Now that you’re in, you can do what ever you want, including negate everything the movement stands for—which, if the behavior of New York State’s former attorney general ("Eric Schneiderman Resigns as New York Attorney General Amid Assault Claims by 4 Women,NYT, 5/7/18) is an indicator, is what is happening across the board.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Have You Ever Snubbed Someone Who Doesn't Know You Exist and Other Pyrrhic Victories?

Have you ever snubbed someone who doesn't know you exist? It’s a sublime pleasure that’s reserved for a select group of Don Quixote like windmill chasers and Iceman Cometh pipe dreamers. Pretending that you have no interest in a person who would obviously be very interesting to you in terms of Freud’s two primal categories of love and work is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. You emerge triumphant while being able to savor the results of defeat at the same time, having come away with nothing more than the frustrating feeling of punching your way out of a paper bag. But what if you gave into your true desires and walked over to a coveted object of either beauty or potential opportunity and found that you were providing gris for somebody else’s mill and that you were fueling feelings of triumph and superiority that were even more enduring due to the fact that they didn’t merely derive from punching air? What if you introduced yourself as Jane Doe and explained that you were always a great admirer of Mr. or Ms. Big’s company, artwork or simply face and found that the reaction was one of an indifference bordering on disdain? Would you then try to convince yourself that you would have been all the more happy if you hadn’t tested the waters and could continue to enjoy the fact that the ball was still in your court and that you had the final say? The answer is probably yes.