Friday, August 31, 2018

Beating the Odds

When you’re in a casino and playing 21, you say “hit me,” when you want to be dealt another card. There are some other phrases  like “les jeux sont faits” which you might hear if you watch a movie like The Croupier (1998) starring Clive Owen. Gambling has something in common with cosmology to the extent that it’s predicated on the notion that while there's no divine order in the universe (why would one gamble if everything is following a plan whose odds you can’t defeat), there’s some free will and some possibility that the chance meeting of atoms, the numbers on the slot machine, the turn of the dice, the black or red numbers of the roulette wheel will result in a Royal Flush or a straight. If you like horses the mountain you’re climbing is the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Preakness Stakes. Bettors also salivate over the Super Bowl and college basketball’s March Madness. The gambling mentality extends into everyday life. When you’re going for a long shot in an impossible situation, you throw a Hail Mary which is a pass that the quarterback of the team that’s losing might heave into the end zone when it’s fourth down with ten seconds left on the clock. What is there to lose? A good majority of gamblers end up in the doghouse, but there are always the exceptions who hit the jackpot and the only way they’ll hold on to their winnings is if they cash in their chips while the metaphorical night is young.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Final Solution: Wild Kingdom

Here is one of the many John McCain quotes that have recently been cited: “We never hide from history. We make history.” It’s an arresting observation and directly the opposite of the kind of subterfuges characteristic of current US foreign policy. But the key point is not conservative, liberal, global or isolationist. Realpolitik in the extreme manifestation characteristic of the current administration is basically totally lacking in the notion of overarching principles. It’s the exemplification of Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism.” One of the big hits of the famed soul singer Jerry Butler was "Only the Strong Survive." It’s no wonder that his soubriquet was “the iceman.” And this way of thinking looks at human life as an episode of “Wild Kingdom,” in which the fittest, say the hyena munching on the entrails of a downed giraffe, defines the food chain. It’s nice to think that with the advent of consciousness mankind has evolved a little bit beyond that paradigm. The president's supporters admire him because he has the kind of shock jock mentality that doesn't shy from blatancy. Trump portrays himself as the top dog with international relations devolving into one of those illegal cockfighting rings that you read about in the paper. You don’t have to agree with everything that John McCain had to say to realize that it emanated from a place of principle and exuded adherence to a higher calling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Final Solution: Paradigm Shifting

The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs asks “Which World Are We Living In?” The editor of the issue, Gideon Rose, prefaces it by citing a lovely quote from Bismarck to the effect that “the statesman’s task was to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and try to catch his coattails as he went past.” What follows is a paradigm party with hats and balloons supplied by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsAmy Chua argues that “Humans, like other primates are tribal animals.” Stephen Kotkin points out that, “Every hegemon thinks it’s the last.” And Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry argue that the “a decent world order will be liberal” despite the fact that “illiberalism, autocracy, nationalism, protectionism, spheres of influence, territorial influence—have reasserted themselves.” You might look at these three modalities like the gears on an old-fashioned manual shift car, with tribalism representing a downshift back to #1, realism and realpolitik #2 and liberal or globalism #3. Primitive tribalism, the starting point seems to be holding sway in the current Trumpocracy. It’s hard to say if the administration has evolved to the kind of self-reflexive consciousness that would make it aware of #2 or its own tendency to implode. Remember the l000 years of Rome? What about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, “the entropy of any isolated system increases.” The US was cruising comfortably in third gear under Obama, but so much water has gone under the bridge that it seems unlikely that the country will ever get up to speed and finally make it to that fourth gear of geopolitical satori.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mission Implausible?

The hero of the latest installment of Mission Impossible--Fallout, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is saddled with the task of saving the world. His tragic flaw if he can be said to have one resides in the fact that he’s obviously a student of Philippa Foot’s famed "trolley problem." You may recall from your course in ethics, it’s the idea of whether you should or shouldn't sacrifice one person for the sake of the many. The villain of the movie, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is a millenarian anarchist named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) who ascribes to the dictum: “the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Mission Impossible could be called Mission Implausible since the action sequences ie 99% of the plot all derive from classic montage where the girl is tied to the tracks and the train is coming. Armageddon is waiting at the end of the film and in the last 15 minutes there are girls tied to tracks everywhere. Like the James Bond movies Mission Impossible is a travelogue in which beautiful people chase each other around equally exotic or iconic places. The current installment in the franchise starts in Berlin and ends in the snowy mountains of Kashmir with the Indian army amassed to protect a wounded hero. But the enjoyment is the tongue in cheek way in which the film treats biting sociopolitical issues (like terrorism) while also thoughtfully tipping its hat to musings on subjects like the humanity of the Ubermensch--and yes, the theme of the one versus the many which motivates both the forces of good and evil.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Little Nothings

Very few cosmologists breach the question of what occurred before the big bang. If there were no particles in the ether of the infinitely smaller universe that existed at the beginning of time, how to describe the void? Was it still a multiverse, albeit composed of infinite layers of emptiness? And how is it possible to conceive of a beginning? Such ideas strain the limits of imagination, even for those who toy with notions of higher beings and creators. It’s as if particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider were just the icing on the cake or the tip of the iceberg of something far grander whose essence no scientist in their right mind would even dare to touch. However does the inexplicable necessarily beg the question of divinity or is it just that there are no tools to explain the varying levels of nothingness that describe space before there was anything. It’s comforting to fill emptiness with spirits and terrifying to consider the notion of something lacking in any describable characteristic, including duration.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Cemetery in Barnes (but not Noble)

Thanks to Gabriel Josipovici whose The Cemetery in Barnes elicited the following paragraph from Michael Caines in the 6/15 TLS: “Gabriel Josipovici’s people are a rum bunch. His oeuvre includes a clown turned private investigator; a girl who listens to her father reading Pope’s Homer and dreams of being like Thetis; some version of the painter Pierre Bonnard; an art historian who once wrote a book about Bonnard is now struggling to write a book about Joseph Cornell. These characters discourse about life and art with a Josipovician jouissance,learned yet light.” One could go on. Actually it’s unclear who to thank the writer or the critic. Without the cast of characters, the review would not have its ne plus ultra faut de mieux. Ah, Wilderness! was the title of an O’Neill play, but this is the reverse. This piece of criticism could be called,  Ah, Western Civilization Goes On After All! The review proceeds on. Suffice it to say, it’s not fair to Mr. Caines to rely totally on his response to Josivopici’s edifice of citations, but it’s hard to hold back on the following: “There is—quoi d’autre?—much quotation from and rumination on Joachim Du Bellay, Shakespeare et al.” Thankfully not a word of politics infects the writing, but one can’t help thinking that the existence of the humanistic enterprise, for all its effeteness (to employ the word that Spiro T. Agnew used to descibe those who opposed the Vietnam War) is some kind of statement, even a protest against the earth spinning off its axis ("Global warming could tilt world off axis,ComputerWeekly. com, August, 2009).

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Final Solutilon: Trump's Willing Executioners

Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a book by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen’s thesis is that German people as a whole were guilty of complicity in the Holocaust. Now the same appears to be true with theTrumpocracy. The president himself has said that he “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” (CNN, 1/23/16). And even the indictments of two of his former henchmen one of whom points to the president's direct involvement in illegal campaign activities ("Michael Cohen Says That Donald Trump Directed His Crimes," The New Yorker, 8/21/18) is unlikely to bring about an end to a presidency which has a support of a vast majority of Republicans (whether the Mueller probe determines that the Trump campaign was “complicit” with the Russians or not). It’s really wrong to believe that dictators repress the populace. In one way of looking at it a dictator expresses the will of a large enough part of the public to stay in power. The difference between a dictator and a mere demagogue or even liberal politician is simply the parliamentary piece. Erdogan rules dictatorially in Turkey and Orban in Hungary. In Poland you have Duda, but none of these personalities would have legitimacy if it weren’t for the fact that a good portion, if not majority, of the polity were tired of immigration, globalism or any of the other pet peeves that fire the imagination of masses of disgruntled voters today. As has been evident, populism in its modern form itself is an expression of fascism, particularly since it holds democratic principles like due process and individual rights in such low esteem. Disaffected and disenfranchised thugs filled the ranks of the nascent Nazi Party and there were undoubtedly criminal elements too. Now we're learning that two early members of the congressional "Trump Caucus" (Chris Collins of NY and Duncan Hunter of California) have both been indicted for their criminal activities.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Circulation des elites

Fulgencio Batista (photo: Harris and Ewing)
Imagine having your favorite morning yoga or spinning class interrupted by commandos, who order you to get off the mat or bike. You were going on your merry way lost in thought about whether tonight was going to be steak or sushi and had no idea a revolution was in the offing. Something like that undoubtedly happened in l917 and the again in Cuba in l959, when Batista was overthrown and the one time playground of the rich became the capital of revolution. It’s a wonderful relief and source of hope that there are bad guys, horrible aristocrats and members of the bourgeoisie that deserve to be slaughtered so that the good guys can thrive. Were that politics or religion for that matter were so simple. Power is conservative and self-perpetuating. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto coined the term “circulation des elites” to deal with the amorality of the realpolitik. Daniel Ortega, the one-time Sandinista leader, had been the hope of Nicaraguans. Now President Ortega is the subject of demonstrations in one of the most troubled economies in the Americas (“Ortega is becoming the kind of autocrat he once despised,” The Washington Post, 7/16/18). Asia Argento one of the first women to come forth about the depredations of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has become the subject of an inquiry concerning her own abuse of a 17 year old ("Asia Argento, a #MeToo Leader, Made a Deal With Her Own Accuser,NYT, 8/19/18). Sanctimony is a warm and cozy feeling, but beware the guy or gal helping you to hoist the outstretched banner. He or she could be your jailer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Gastro-Industrial Complex

Among foodies and those concerned with health and longevity, the gastro-industrial complex is looked at a little the way one regards the seasons of increasing virulent hurricanes. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Popeyes, KFC, Dunkin Donuts and the chains offering a slightly higher level of modestly priced fare like Red Lobster and Applebees are looked at with both suspicion and disdain. Rumors abound of farms producing genetically engineered parts of chickens and there's always the question of the quality of ingredients like meat. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was a famous expose of an industry credited with an epidemic of obesity amongst the poor. Low income individuals don’t have the assets to afford delicacies like farm fed beef and organic vegetables which tend to command premium prices. There’s no doubt that diet and health are inextricably intertwined. On the other hand there's something wistful about fast food and the nostalgia occasioned by the childhood memories of ubiquitous McDonald’s arches which greet anyone cruising down Route #1(this was in part the message of the Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown classic, Learning from Las Vegas). McDonald’s is like a utility and it’s familiar Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and McNuggets can be as reassuring as the site of a post office. Vacationers seek out the exotic, but they also take pleasure in feeling at home wherever they go and the fake fireplace in the latest generation of Wendy’s with their Baconators can provide a respite from the alienation and estrangement of modern life. The Colonel is a piece of advertising hype, but have you ever smiled to yourself when you looked into his face after a long ride, facing a host of mnemonic olfactory sensations that derive from the remembrance of “buckets” past.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Cedars of Lebanon

Cedrus libani (photo: Benutzer:Mpeylo)
Cedars of Lebanon is the name of a well known hospital in L.A. From the arborial point of view, it also refers to a vanishing species of tree indigenous to a country that was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East ("Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon," NYT, 7/18/18). Lebanon, a bilingual country where French is spoken in addition to Arabic is still a facionalized society after years of skirmishes between Christian and Muslim factions (it’s home to the Hezbollah). However, lately it's become overheated in another way. From a literary point of view the environmental problems (in particular overheating) could be viewed as an example of the pathetic fallacy, in which nature mirrors the terror in the poet's soul. But they’re also terrifyingly real as the seemingly immortal and eponymous cedars that have been one of the countries most well-known natural wonders have begun to die. And it’s not a result of the frictions between opposing parties. Nature can be an articulate spokesman for the derelictions of man. However even if the solution lay in an end to the country’s political problems, it’s unlikely warring factions would lay down arms. Self-destruction and the seeming human need to implode can be viral forces as has been noted in the legacy of mutilation that followed the fall of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Still it’s unlikely that the death of the cedars is a metaphor for domestic politics in an embattled country. The cause is, for good or bad, is more global with the blame falling to the greenhouse effect and co2. 

Friday, August 17, 2018


Class is an elusive concept these days. There are Business and Economy Class on most planes and some still have an even higher category designated as First. Business Class passengers travel in comfort with seats that go back 180 degrees so they can sleep while those in economy have to suffer. But the First Class passenger is traveling in even greater splendor that's not validated in a Calvinist way by his participating in any kind of redeeming activity. The First Class passenger has a lot of money because of their class. Whether they work or not is irrelevant. They’re able to afford even greater luxuries due to their economic status. While the Business Class passenger, a member of the managerial or ownership class, might be concerned with getting a bang for his her buck i.e. value, the First Class passenger, because of their position on the food chain, is no longer required to take a business-like approach particularly when their travel is related totally to pleasure. An aristocrat by birth, Alexis de Tocqueville dealt with the question of class in Democracy in America. According to de Tocqueville, one generation of Americans might be upper class and the next might find themselves in poverty. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society is the title of a book by Ralf Dahredorf, a sociologist who was also member of the German Parliament. In societies like France and England, where there's a hereditary aristocracy, class is less a matter of money than lineage, though in our modern day and age there are some companies which apparently traffic in titles, which can be bought. Virgin Atlantic refers to their Business Class as Upper which may be a way of tipping their hat toward the idea of royalty. Also a highborn Englishman can be a member of the impoverished aristocracy as was the case with Churchill. Classy is a word that's often used to describe people as well as things and it implies something conveying a certain element of superiority. When you describe someone as “a class act,” you’re referring to a certain ineffable quality that devolves from their carriage, savoir faire and perhaps education. Speaking of which, when someone asks what class you're in, it still likely to refer to a course you're taking.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pornosophy: Aborting an Image

l997 Playboy covergirl, Karen McDougal
Pornography is like an unwanted pregnancy. While not the result of any real sexual act,  it leaves an indelible imprint on the imagination. It’s a little like being impregnated. One of the differences from copulation is that it results in a picture rather than a fetus, though in this case the transgressive image is practically impossible to abort. It’s too bad that Roe v. Wade didn’t deal with the problems of removing an unwanted sexual scenario from the brain rather than just the unborn child in a woman’s uterus. In general there's one other element about pornography that separates it from human sexuality in general and that’s the sense that it's unending state tempts mortality. The biblical temptation that’s the provenance of this nether side of human sexuality is forever canonized in the pornographic conceits that outlive both their performers and audience. Pornography is like the plague to the extent that it's so viral. Is it an overstatement to call a phenomenon epidemic when a site may receive millions of hits in one day? The question of pornography is not ethical or even esthetic to use two of Kierkegaard’s famed categories, it’s phenomenological. If one is to discuss pornography, one might be better served to discuss it along with the matter of opioids, which serve a purpose for those who control their use, but have nefarious consequences when employed by addictive personalities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Stranger Than Paradise

If you eat healthy food, you may find you'll live to 80, 90 or maybe forever, but what are you going to do then? Be one of those old people who are half deaf and incapable of modulating? Is sounding like one of the methadone addicts who call loudly at each other on the street something to look forward to? On the other hand if you eat fast food at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Popeyes and KFC is it possible that you're going backwards and will eventually lose years of your life? Perhaps this isn’t clear. Is there a way that you can reach 60 and get bumped back to 50, kind of a negative credit that ends up cutting things short retroactively? Time and space may appear straight forward but they’re not.There are many glitches and anomalies that get passed over simply because people don’t want to believe there are mysteries in the universe. Stranger Than Paradise is the title of Jim Jarmusch’s l984 breakout film. Eddie one of Jamusch’s characters makes the following remark, “You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.” On the other hand, the unexpected may occur. You never know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Invisible Men (and Women)

Shylock is one of the most famous examples of racial profiling in literature, only seconded by the tragic Moor, Othello. But stereotyping is a hop, skip and jump away from appropriation and cultural envy is a little like penis envy to the extent that it’s predicated on an inflation of the value of something that’s simply human. If a penis is something you don’t have, you may at one point in life have wanted one. Then you eventually realize the good points of the genitalia you were born with—or undergo SRS (sexual reassignment surgery). Race is more problematic. Sex turns out to be more labile than ethnicity or race, which are harder to (e)rase though this was precisely the survival mechanism described in Louis Begley's Wartime Lies. James Brown famously sang “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” However, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man suffered from an anonymity that derived from being identified simply by the color of his skin. Cultural hegemons beget epigones. Hitler was an example of this phenomenon since though he was an Aryan, he was an Austrian rather than a pure bred German, if you’re speaking of who’s deserving of the title Reichsfuhrer. Brooks Brothers, the clothing store is predicated on the notion that you can be part of the WASP ruling class by simply dressing in rep ties and button down color shirts (preferably pink on the weekends) and tasseled cordovan loafers or wingtips. A form of conversion that had even more credibility at the time of the movie Gentleman's Agreement (1947), which dealt with "restricted" establishments, occurred when a member of a minority was admitted to an exclusive college like Yale, or club, like the University, Union League or Racquet. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sipike Lee's BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was released on the first anniversary of Charlottesville. Yet it’s strangely equivocal and equanimous at first. The film is rife with all manner of iconography and film reference. A scene in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the black cop on whose memoir the movie is based, goes dancing with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, who sports an Angela Davis style Afro sends up Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. Black genre films of the 70’s like Superfly and Shaft are cited along with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (projected on the face of Alec Baldwin the resident Trump parodist on Saturday Night Live) and Gone With the Wind. The Birth of a Nation itself has recently been the subject of “remake” by Nate Parker. Of course the epitome of equivocation is the paralleling of the cries of “white power” and “black power” by the film’s two contingencies: the Klan addressed by David Duke (Topher Grace) whose “American first” and “make America great” type comments create cackles of recognition in the audience and the black student group which is being addressed by Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). At the end Patrice says “my conscience wont let me sleep with the enemy” to which Ron replies “I’m the black man who saved your life.” But the film is also a parody of equivocation. Donald Trump’s famous comment about the tragic protests in which he gave moral equivalence to White Supremacists, haunts the narrative.Stereotypes are parodied and juxtaposed and the paralleling itself becomes the subject of parody. The film is full of clever little turns of racist logic. Ron’s sidekick Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) a Jewish undercover cop undercuts one of the Klansmen’s arguments for holocaust denial by pointing out how effective the holocaust was in getting rid of Jews. The director’s choreography of ideas, the dance of his plot lines, is clever and entertaining right up until its stunning ending when the action crashes head-on with the sad reality and violence of the raw Charlottesville footage. The rotary phone has a cameo in BlacKkKlansman.It’s the anachronistic vehicle by which Ron Stallworth speaks to David Duke. You might simply write it off as a prop in a period piece, but there’s something, not hopeful, but wistful about it. The anachronism is the elephant in the room, since the charade on which the movie is premised, the delusive connection or lack thereof between two human beings is ultimately name of the game.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Courting Oblivion

Oblivion is around the corner. First of all it is something that all living forms face, a precipice that’s as dramatic as birth. From the moment you’re born, you begin to face its prospect. It’s like a black hole since it disposes of material essence. The minute you cross the event horizon of oblivion you become forgettable and eventually you’re no longer even a memory or footnote, since history itself is sucked into the juggernaut of non-being. But oblivion is also metaphorical. When you’re going through a particularly self-abnegating period, you toy with oblivion when you do things of a self-destructive or maladaptive nature. You sport the kind of devil-may-care attitude you might have been more cautious to exhibit at a period when you liked yourself and took the gift of life more seriously. You do something dangerous or something which makes you feel horrible about yourself, indulging an addiction or falling victim to some kind of predatory perversion, a chain reaction of transgression, an infernal machine that can only be satisfied by constantly raising the ante. Sometimes, in fact, those caught up in maelstroms of self-hatred don’t realize that they’re courting oblivion until it’s too late. You read stories about people popping too many pills, but how many of them are conscious of the fact that they're on the way to the longest sleep they’ll ever take? You can throw yourself off a cliff, or do something that's so shameful and abhorrent that by doing it you have already stepped over the line.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Verfremdungseffekt Support Group

Brecht (photo: Jorg Kolbe, German Federal Archives)
Have you ever experienced a hatred of happy people who seem smug and self-satisfied? And conversely have you found yourself drawn to the sufferer who's more willing to pour out his or her sorrow and open their heart to you? The human condition is indeed a sad state of affairs to the extent that those who are perfectly content and don’t need others are condemned to an isolation they themselves may be impervious to. Not to sell the idea of mourning, but those who have experienced loss or have been deprived of something that was once a great source of satisfaction (either
because of addiction or merely scarcity) are more prone to seek out fellow sufferers. They're a little like refugees who have been exiled from their homes and need each other to a survive in a way that landed hegemons rarely experience. The bonds between those who are estranged from the world they’re in tend to be stronger than than the ones between free agents who are able to move insouciantly through life, without a care in the world.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Was Fred Rogers as loving and accepting of his own feelings and faults as he told children to be? In fact, can anyone be? It’s a question that lurks beneath the surface of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? To take a negative view of human potential is to ascribe to nihilism, but what was the reality of the kindly Fred Rogers who said things like “you don’t have to be anything sensational for people to love you,” “what is essential in life is invisible to the eye,” “silence is one of the greatest gifts we have”? Rogers swam a mile every day at the Pittsburgh Athletic club and his weight always came out to be 143 pounds. With the one standing for “I,” the four, “love” and the three, "you,” it's a neat little package and for all Won’t You Be My Neighbor's? charm, you might wonder if things don’t fit together a bit too tidily. Using Rogers' own epistemology of acceptance and self-love, one would be hard put to get by the board of the metaphoric gated community he lived in. Still certain images leave an indelible impression, amongst them the trolley that continually leaves and comes back. What better nostrum for separation anxiety and what better iteration of Winnicott’s famed transitional object than Roger’s familiar sock puppet? (Luminaries in the field of child development like Benjamin Spock, Berry Brazelton and Erik Erikson all are cited in the movie). Then there's the scene of the congressional hearing where Rogers totally melts the thick-skinned Senator John Pastore, thereby securing the $20 million subsidy that was so necessary to public television’s future. Rogers was an ordained minister and the movie portrays him as the unassuming side of the superhero. Though he had to possess a certain degree of drive to produce a project of such magnitude and appeal, he was a televangelist for a good cause--kindness. “I want there to be peace in the neighborhood,” is one of the movie's many mantras. “It’s been a hard time for everyone.”Apparently Rogers found relief on the set of his own show. Will You Be My Neighbor? is the legacy of an era when peace and love were still considered viable philosophical positions.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Venice Journal: Arrivederci!

El Toro and Kingda Ka at Six Flags (photo: Paulm27)
Venice is the Six Flags of Renaissance art. The only problem is that there are no stomach churning rides. Beside the crowds modernity has eluded the below sea level city which sports a form of public transportation, the Vaporetto, which moves at a snail’s pace. It’s a tautology to say Venice is beautiful, but beauty can be elusive amidst the throngs of tourists. Imagine yourself packed into a crowded New York subway at rush hour in which the cars were decorated with Tintorettos instead of graffiti. Of course any person who has an investment in their image as a cultivated person is going to choose choose Venice over Six Flags in say Jackson, New Jersey just as they will take Bouilly over Popeyes. But it may be important to remember that it was human activities like Six Flags that were the basis of much great art. Take for instance Jacques Feyder’s Carnival in Flanders which is a painting come to life. What you're getting on a visit to Venice is a hand-me-down, many artists' representations of their idea of fun. However, are such vicarious pleasures truly enjoyable amidst a background of bored restauranteurs, lousy food and injustice collecting Americans who are ever eager to exercise their First Amendment rights by crying “fire!” in a crowded movie theater? If you want to have a good time, can Venice and just ride El Toro, the rollercoaster at Six Flags.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Lombardy Journal: Mantua or Mantova?

Mantegna self-portrait in the Camera degli Sposi (watercolor by Hallie Cohen)
Your tour leader or cheerleader will take you to the Ducal palace and describe a collection that was once the most famous in the world. But the Gonzagas, who ruled Mantova, liked wine, women and song and the art had to be sold to Charles I in 1637 to make ends meet. Which is one instance which underscores the English connection that gives Italian cities like Mantova anglicized names. Power was the name of the game. The Gonzagas ruled for 400 years (1328-1707). Every stone of Mantua breathes the Gonzaga name and when you learn about the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, you begin to understand that the great dynasty was a little like Robert Moses, imposing its will over the Benedictines who collected their tolls with an earlier structure whose Gothic bell tower remains amidst the baroque work of Leon Battista Alberti. When pilgrims visited the Basilica which houses a famous religious relic (and also the chapel in which Mantegna is buried) they now paid the Gonzagas. The confluence of baroque, medieval and gothic styles is what Dickens saw from the window of the apartment he lived in when he visited Mantua in 1844 and which now houses a restaurant called Tiratappi. The beauty of Mantua is highly touted, but it’s actually deeply strange. On a recent evening at the heart of the tourist season, albeit in the middle of a heatwave, the place was a deserted backwater with half-empty restaurants where no writer was going to be hanging his hat.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Emilia-Romagna Journal: Teatro all'antica

Teatro all'Antica (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
The first stand-alone purpose-built theater since antiquity, the Teatro all’antica, still remains in the hamlet of Sabbioneta. It was designed by the Italian architect Scamozzi and commissioned by Duke Vespasiano 1 Gonzaga. The façade sports the inscription “Roma Quanta Fuit Ipse Ruina Docal.” The expression might elude you. "Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” is probably more applicable. Even back in the 16thcentury people were using culture to create a kind of credibility. And plainly the Duke was looking to enhance the stature of his small duchy. Real estate developers know that when artists move into a backwater, home and apartment prices go up. Sabbioneta is still the sleepy little town that it probably once was back in 1588, though it still has a synagogue remaining from a time before the Second World War when there were thriving Jewish communities all over Italy. But what would the local fare have been? Perhaps commedia dell’arte, the masked comedy based on stock characters like Pulcinella, Pantalone and Arlecchino would have fit the bill. However, the Teatro all’antica was not like the Globe which would come into existence only a few years later. While the Elizabethan stage produced a kind of tabloid journalism written by a fellow named Shakespeare playing to the appetites of the masses, the Teatro all’Antica was a small theater with burnished  wood benches which plainly catered to the elite.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Emiglia-Romagna Journal: Cutting the Cheese

photograph of Ciaolatte storage room by Hallie Cohen
Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese that’s produced in only one area of Italy. Anything that's not from that heart shaped region between Parma and Reggiano, separated by the Po River from Lombardy, is not the real McCoy. If you take the tour of the Ciaolatte factory in Borghetto, you'll learn that there are three ingredients to a recipe that produces deceptively rocky crystals that easily crumble in your hands. Rennet, which is the intestine of a baby calf, provides the enzyme that creates the inner life of the cheese which takes about 3 years of aging before it’s ripe enough to be eaten. Cows have to be milked twice a day and so the cheese is produced 365 days a year with the milk from the night before, a form of skim milk or whey, which lies in trays, rolling into copper cisterns which are then filled with fresh milk, rennet and salt. Each cistern produces two wheels of cheese. The cheese eventually is housed on shelves in a huge refrigerated warehouse where it has to meet strict regional inspection standards before it's sent out into the world. A short while back one of the cheese warehouses had been broken into, but the cheese was recovered when the getaway vehicle broke down. That’s about as complicated as the life of a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheel gets.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Emilia-Romagna Journal: Castello di Tabiano

prosciutto at Gallo d"Oro (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
Emilia-Romagna has the best prosciutto in the world and one of the best restaurants of the region is Angiol d' Or in Parma. Try the zucchini flowers, the incomparable spaghetti carbonara served with a yolk of an egg that’s still intact when it's brought to your plate and then finish up with a crispy leg of pork. After that you might want to wander across the square of the Duomo with its pillared Moorish architecture to the famed Teatro Farnese, if only to take a peek inside its wooded interior. Journeying into the countryside, perhaps making your way toward the Po Valley and Mantua you might stop at Castello di Tabiano, a dazzling romantic resort on a mountain top which overlooks Parma and Fidenza and has a storied history of its own. Originally built as a fortress by the Pallavicinos in the 12thcentury, it was turned into a castle in 1877 by the Corazza family. The story gets more complicated from a culinary point of view since one of the Corazzas married the daughter of Carlo Gatti, aka the "Ice King." Ice and ice cream require salt and the nearby Salsomaggiore was famous for its salt baths (the word salary incidentally comes from salt, if that's any help). Parmesan cheese and wine became two of the major products made at the Tabiano castle and the smell of the cheese still permeates the basement area even though a new generation of Corazzas has devoted their energies to tourism.