Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Rome Journal: Sub specie aeternitatis

Overstimulation creates a high bar. You crash and the only thing that works is another hit say of success or Percocet. Freud regarded Rome's stratified architecture as a metaphor for mind. From the point of view of aspiration, it offers a history of striving. Can one learn from Maxentius, Marcellus, Augustus, Hadrian ( whose poetic aspirations were addressed in Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian)? John Williams' addressed the quintessence of Augustus and "The Augustan" impulse in a novel named after the famed emperor-- also  responsible for exiling Ovid. Remember that Plato would have recused all poets from his Republic. Take a deep breath next time you're in Rome, especially if you're passing an antiquity on the famed 75 going from the top of the Janiculum to Independence Plaza and the central train station,Termini. Rome makes you look at even elation under the prospect of a sobering eternity.

read "The Fall of Rome" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and, talking about antiquity let's give it up for "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Rome Journal: Piazza di San Cosimato

"Only Connect" famously punctuates Howard's End. Speaking of connection and the unending culture wars E.M. Forster is about as popular as T.S. Eliot on college English syllabi. Imagine Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death on his way home from the latest strain of Covid as mobs of students attack the Cannon! Now toss your empty bucket of popcorn in the trash as you depart the lost art houses of yesteryear. You're standing in the middle of the Piazza di San Cosimato in Trastevere, facing the empty stalls of the weekend market (it's Monday btw). And your head is swimming with connectivity. Jasmine and Joia who man the espresso bar on Glorioso recognize you. "Bongiorno Francesco!" The guys who make that amazing pizza with puntarrelle and anchovies recognize the guy from "Manhattan" and you're even an item that's not a grocery at the PAM on Carini. Is the world your oyster? Or are you in Rome having had one too many--espressos that is?

read "Rome Journal: An Oasis For Depressives" by Francis Levy, HuffPost

and listen to "Land of a Thousand Dances" by Wilson Pickett

Monday, January 29, 2024

Rome Journal: The Leopard

You might describe America as a meritocracy where those in the highest echelons of society earn enough money so they no longer have to work--something which can lead to suicide. Every society has its own topography. Is Italy or Roman society in particular a competitive dog eat dog world in which outsized financial instruments facilitate the "income inequality" Thomas Piketty has described? When Italians voted for a Republic over Monarchy on June 2,1946, the results were a close call. Lampedusa's The Leopard may have described the decline of the old order with the Risogimento and Garibaldi's triumphant march to Rome. However, the antiquities Romans so proudly cherish betoken the strength of their ties to the past. Despite its socialist leanings, Rome is a hereditary aristocracy to the extent that every citizen has inherited and lives in a highly revered past--and present with fashionistas like Versace and Valentino creating their own noble lines.

read Rome Journal: The Screaming Pope, HuffPost

and listen to "Mustang Sally" by Wilson Pickett

Friday, January 26, 2024

Rome Journal: Ozymandias

Ramesses II ('British Museum)

Imagine that particularly scary bungee jump in Macau or the  timed dive headfirst off a Mexican cliff. Most people don't subject themselves to such fear. However the collective unconscious functions differently.
Gore Vidal's screenplay for Was Bob Guccione's disastrous Caligula any further from the truth than Ben Hur? What motivated those troops facing imminent death as they charged up the cliffs of Omaha Beach? The Roman Empire. You might say that at one point in history a whole city took on the world. Says Shelley's traveler in Ozymandias  "two vast legless trunks of stone stand in the desert..." And where does the cosmic yawn fit in? Have the majestic ruins--that appear like apparitions as you travel through downtown Roma-- earned their immortality?

listen to Joan Baum's NPR review of The Kafka Studies Department

and watch the trailer for Erotomania

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Rome Journal: Ladri di biciclette

You would need the Webb telescope which has found light emanating within a stones throw of the Big Bang (300,00-500,000 hundred million years after) to find a face who you have fallen in love with in the crowd. Remember the scene in Orfeo Negro (1959) when the besotted lover turns back to seek out his Eurydice, disappearing into the Hades of Rio's Carnivale? It's throwing dice to get an unsubstantiated feeling you'll find a former or would be lover perusing the stalls of the weekend market at Piazza Cosimato or Porta Portese. You'd have to assume that form of non-artificial intelligence called intuition and also sense they were consciously or subliminally sharing your thoughts. When? In Rome!

and listen to Turn Around" by Bonnie Tyler

and also listen to Joan Baum's NPR review of The Kafka Studies Department

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Rome Journal: Caesar, Cesare, Cesar

30 Aprile (the date of peace treaty in 1848), 3 Gugno 1849 (one of the days in 1946 when Italians had to decide between monarchy and republic), 20 Settembre (commemorating the beach of the Aurelian walls by General Raffaele Cordoba in 1870)--the collective unconscious of Rome is celebratory and mnemonic. Italy's Risorgimento is documented on its highways and by ways. You wind around the steep curves of Garibaldi to drive in chima to Piazza San Pancrazio and the arch of  Garibaldi monument at the top of the Gianicolo. If you're one of those people who dosn't like being reminded of the past and doesn't want get in practice under the famed Santayana formulation, Rome is not for you. "Et tu, Brut?" Caesar was murdered in 44 BC right by the Piazza Argentina--itself an archeological site. Rome's layers of archeology were a metaphor for mind in Freud's "philosophy." And btw it's Caesar in Latin, Cesar in English and Cesare as in the great Roman writer Cesare Pavese.

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department in Booklife

and listen to "Good Times" by Chic

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Rome Journal: Favoloso Calvino

portrait of. Calvino by Tullio Pericoli

Italo Calvino, the subject of a show at the Scuderie, is not usually associated with Alberto Sordi, the comic actor and star of Mafioso (1962) and Una Vita Difficile (1961)--this last also the title of the novel Sordi's feckless protagonist fails to sell. Calvino became everything that the Sordi creation wanted to be--an internationally known author and social activist. What's interesting is that the author of Italian Folktales and the fictionalized fiction (the novel titled Una Vita Difficile) shared a common bio ie in being a partisan who who resisted The Republic of Salo, the Mussolini run puppet government that followed the allied victory in '43. Membership in the Communist Party and internment constituted the CV of the reality and the creation. Sordi's character was not the doppoelganger or double for Calvino but Borges might have written a clever story about the fictional characters desire to move from "shadow" to reality. BTW, Calvino's Mr. Palomar, his last work, bears comparison to another famous literary alter ego Zbigniew Herbert's Pan Cogito.

listen to Joan Baum's NPR review of The Kafka Studies Department

and listen to "What Kind of Food (Do you think I am)?" by The Tams

Monday, January 22, 2024

Rome Journal: Ghosting


Stanley Hotel, Estes Co

Ghosts is the name of a famous Ibsen play about syphillis. Ibsen btw lived in Rome and it's where he wrote Ghosts (1881), Brandt (1866), Peer Gynt (1867) and A Doll's House (1879). Ghosts also haunted the Overlook Hotel to terrifying effect in the form of delusions produced by late stage alcoholism in The Shining. "Ghost of yesterday/ stalking round my room..." sang Billie Holiday. "Ghosting" a new urban legend is an odd choice of word since it means being "forgotten" or "avoided." Which brings up the question of Rome, a paen to the past which is filled with ghosts of a decidedly less haunting nature. The place is so rife with ghosts, it could use Ghostbusters. You don't have layers of extant pastness without ghosts. Freud equated psychoanalysis with archeology and for him Rome was plainly the equivalent a vast amusement park a Six Flags, where rides and attractions especially the House of Mirrors become increasingly dangerous--the longer you stay on the couch.

and listen to You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) by Sylvester

and with the trailer for the animation of Erotomania

Friday, January 19, 2024

Rome: The Screaming Pope Comes to Rome

Portrait of Innocent X by Velasquez

A Pope coming to Rome might seem an odd iteration though not that crazy in this world of bespoke donuts. Human life is essentially a Second Coming. Those suffering from Imposter  or Capgras Syndrome believe that familiar faces are occupied by strangers, but occasionally it's true. You don't have to be paranoid to think someone's following you. During The Babylonian Captivity, there were actually two popes, one in Rome, another in Avignon. The current pope, Francis, is a nice guy and progressive when it comes to things like gay marriage, but who knows what God has up his sleeve?A Franciscan friar waiting on line with everyone else to get in? Hang around the Vatican long enough and you might get lucky and run into the real Pope. NB don't miss  Art and Science in the Rome of Urban VIII at the Barberini. Under Urban's papacy 1623-44 the "two cultures" flourished as they never had before.

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department on Booklife

and listen to "Hitchhike" by Marvin Gaye

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Rome: Piranesi

The Canopus

If you're a creature of routine you probably prefer cities that can be mapped out on a grid. Rome or for that matter Paris and London perplex you. You prefer your straight lines and coordinates of the kind you can plot on old-fashioned graph paper. Symmetry is a religion that brings with it a certainty that those who seek to believe in something can grasp. Is god geometric? Rome is inured in belief. Even atheist members of Rome's once exuberant Communist party (which eventually repudiated Marxist-Leninism and evolved into the PDS or Democratic Party of the Left) was bathed in edifices of belief. Ubiquitous churches make up for the charmed confusion of this rendezvous with antiquity.

listen to Joan Baum's NPR review of The Kafka Studies Department

 and also listen "Mr. Pitiful" by Otis Redding

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Rome Journal: La Prossima Volta

There are some people who live life under the aspect of eternity and others who apparently have no idea what eternity  means. Heidegger argued that without the awareness of the imminence of death one could not live an "authentic" existence. Of course Camus argued that the only philosophical problem was suicide but he was a writer of fictions whose mandate was not to seek the truth. In Italian "the last time" is "l'ultima volta." The sound of words is a giveaway. "Volta" is very emphatic and sounds a little like "volare" "to fly" or "volere" "to want." One wonders what the grid of NY transportation would look like if Robert Moses had become a Rome Fellow? Would the LIE have been modeled on the Appia Antica which passes the Circus of Maxentius? Would the black hole of congestion and Procrustean destruction that made way for the Cross Bronx Expressway have have been spared by a dose of the "eternal city." Rome is filled with labyrinthine streets, secret passageways and cul de sacs that provide a glimpse of eternity. 

read NPR's Joan Baum on The Kafka Studies Department

and listen to "Maybe" by The Chantels

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Rome Journal: The Manchurian Candidate

Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Is there such a thing as a definable culture? Can one generalize about the Romans? Travelers like Goethe came to Italy in search of the past. Popular stereotypes and profiles are often derive from cinema. Alberto Sordi transformed the stereotype of the Roman male from the suave Mastroianni women chaser of La Dolce Vita (1960) and Divorce Italian Style (1961) to an anti-heroic schlepp who ultimately has its roots in the Chaplin of Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940)Sordi is best known for his role Lattuada's Mafioso (1962) which talking about culture was an essay on the poles of North and South. In An Diffiucult Life (1961), Sordi plays a "scrittore Romani" who fails in his attempt to sell the story of his life.Nothing new here you might say. Been there done that. However A Difficult Life is the Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) Rome. It creates a mythos. You have the Greco-Roman Gods and likewise the myths created at Cinecitta. Are any of these filmic masks ie the feckless dreamer, the lady killer or the operatic prostitute played by Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma (1962) personalities one encounters on the street? The answer depends on whether your view of reality is conditioned by art or life.

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department  by Francis Levy in Booklife

and listen to "Boogaloo Down Broadway" by Johnny C

Monday, January 15, 2024

Rome Journal: Step by Step

"Step By Step" was The Crests hit song of the '60s. "Step by step I fell in love with you" was the refrain." Of course the 12 Steps" have become a meme of struggle and survival. Despite this, few people are gifted with the ability or patience to take things one step at a time either literally or metaphorically. A marathoner or mount climber who doesn't hone to this spiritual principle will burn out and, in the later case, fall. If you think all the time about getting over the top, at the price of existential awareness, you miss "being there," to quote Heidegger. Ambulating around Rome is one way to build spiritual fortitude to the extent that you constantly have to navigate magisterial stairways to... .

read Hallie Cohen's interview on collaboration

and listen to "Step By Step" by The Crests

Friday, January 12, 2024

Rome Journal: Love in the Ruins


Being in a crowd of tourists on line to get into the Colloseum brings back Sartre's famous line from No Exit (1944) "hell is--other people!" Tourists are the the knights of the Middle Ages chasing The Holy Grail or The Shroud of Turin, purportedly Christ's burial outfit. Max von Sydow played one of these seekers in The Seventh Seal (1957). He ends up playing chess with Death (Gunnar Bjornstrand), but from the look on his face he's ready to tip over his king--after having to deal with the likes of Savonarola, and the Plague. So what are all these gnats looking for? Dr. Thomas More's Ontological Lapsometer in Walker Percy's Love In the Ruins (1971)? If you've ever been on one of those Empress Travel tours with all the prepaid walks through Versailles, Mont Michel, The Parthenon, Petra, Angkor What(?) and every other destination that becomes a collectible for anxious and compulsive seekers, you know when it's time to cash in your chips.

read Hallie Cohen's interview on collaboration

and listen to the playlist for Francis Levy's The Kafka Studies Department

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Rome Journal: SPQR

SPQR, Senātus Populusque Romanus, "the senate and the people of Rome" graces all the sewer covers, reminding you that you can't escape Rome. This is no small thing since these letters could and should be emblazoned on literally all the legislatures of the world from Parliament to the National Diet, the Knesset and naturally the tangled American congress which hones to the adage about "giving a person enough rope and they will strangle themselves." If ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, it was Rome which produced the body of laws and structures that could, for instance, lead to the notion of a bicameral legislature or a Napoleonic Code. One should also note that Rome is literally the only city to put its name on an empire. You have the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia which Putin would like to recreate. However, though you might refer to Muscowvites, the city of Moscow has not taken advantage of the naming opportunity that Russia's "special military operation" has incurred.

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department  by Francis Levy in Booklife

and listen to "Boogaloo Down Broadway" by Johnny C

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Rome Journal: Roman Stories

The Pamphili gardens are like an oasis and large enough to get lost in. From San Pancrazio at the top of the Gianicolo, the Villa Doria Pamphili appears almost out of nowhere. You come to a fork in the road. You can proceed along the Via Aurelia or take the Via Fontaneia which leads into Monteverdi—a Roman suburb that’s far from tourist Rome. Pasolini was a resident early in his career-- after leaving the apartment he shared with his mother at Via Tagliere Giovanni 3 near the Ribibbia prison (what is now the last stop on Line B). But the warren of streets around Monteverdi with their small cafes, inauspicious flower shops and markets including a kosher butcher are precarious by virtue of their anonymity. The one thing about monuments is that they're literally landmarks; they situate you without having recourse to Google maps. Roman Stories is the tile one of the Pulitzer Prize winning Bengali-born New Yorker writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s books and it's significant that her characters go unnamed. Any city is characterized by one degree or other of proliferation and marginality, but the Rome that’s far from  famous historical sites like the Caracalla Baths is profoundly confounding, partially due to its lived-in quality. If you want to have a senior moment where you forget where you are, Monteverdi is the place to come.

listen to the playlist for Francis Levy's story collection, The Kafka Studies Department

Tuesday, January 9, 2024


Consciousness is what many neuroscientists regard as one of the major unsolved riddles of life as it’s known. Is it biological? Is mentation comparable to ingestion or defecation? What does cogito ergo sum mean? Or should it be sum ergo cogito? Or hic cum?  For one, it designates self-rellexive consciousness as the trait separating man from animal. One might say Descartes was an early exponent of speciation while others like Steven J. Gouid see it developing as a result of bipedalism. Prehensile ancestors, the Australopithecus afahrensis of "Lucy" fame, existing 3.8 million years ago, are considered precursors to conscious, thinking beings. The mind/body problem has yet to be solved. In an article in The New Yorker entitled "Why the Godfather of A.I. Fears What He's Built" (11/13/23) Joshua Rothman says, “You have some eighty billion neurons sharing a hundred trillion connections or moreYour skull contains a galaxy worth of constellations, always shifting.” AI is getting closer creating the "neural nets" that produce thinking computers. If it's possible to understand what goes on in a computer, then the riddle of the mind won't be far behind.

read Hallie Cohen interview on collaboration

and listen to "Ain't That Peculiar" by Marvin Gaye

Monday, January 8, 2024

Speciation and Social Media

Political systems like species evolve. Currently democracy is threatened by the equivalent of the Ice Age--brought about by Trump, Bolsinaro, Victor Orban, Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jinping and the putsch of the Myanmyr generals who jailed Nobel Prize winner and peace activist, Aung San Suu Kyi and committed genocide on the Rohingya population. Verdicts are rendered without judge or jury even in more enlightened societies where social media has created virtual lynch mobs deposing those guilty of minor offenses or none at all. Careers are summarily ended in much the way they were during the McCarthy era, only the blacklisting is done by the left as well as the right. It's not even AI. Social media is a good illustration of how the objects of man's creation have gotten the upper hand.

listen to Francis Levy's playlist for The Kafka Studies Department on Largehearted Boy

Friday, January 5, 2024

Raskolnikov Meets Meursault

Did Camus get his idea for The Stranger from Dostoevsky? The random and meaningless murder on the beach of the Algerian town recalls Raskolnikov's killing of the old woman. The issuance of the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie and hysterically against Larry David in one episode of Curb My Enthusiasm are stupid comparisons, though these kinds of intellectual Hail Marys can be instructive. Saying something just to get attention is also murder. "Macbeth does murder sleep." "Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte. Ou peut-etre hier. Je ne sais pas" This declaration however bleak does sound like "existential air traffic control." Camus is giving away his cards. What better motive for homicide than a death in the family? Raskolnikov has always been a darling of the Being and Nothingness crowd. Sartre groupers and clones like Walter Kaufmann, famous for his anthology of abridged texts, all glom onto the poor student whose life takes on meaning by virtue of his meaningless crime, but while one may not cotton to murder, the old pawnbroker hardly elicits one's sympathy. How many times have you gone into pawn shop and looked at the guy or girl behind the bullet-proof window like the prostitute did in The Pawnbroker (1964).

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department in Booklife.

and listen to "Don't Make Promises" by Tim Hardin

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Third Man

A restored print of The Third Man (1949) is currently playing at Film Forum. Reconsider your decision not to go on the basis of how many times you've seen it. The dramatic angle shots that permeate the movie are a metaphor for the way art plays tricks on perception and, in fact, life itself. Like one of the sewer rats to which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) bears comparison, it squirms out of reach, just as you are about to catch it. The movie will not be tamed no matter how many times you see it. Remember the hilarious scene where Holly (Joseph Cotton) is struck dumb when asked by participants in a literary group what he thinks about "stream of consciousness." He's a writer but not the kind who's heard of Joyce. Or think back to the scene at The Prater where Harry gives his famous "cuckoo clock" speech ("in Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? the cuckoo clock") against the web of the Ferris wheel. It's a perfect vantage point for Carol Reed's camera scours Vienna's bombed out landscape of Neo-Renaissance figurines as Harry presents his derogation of history. Or that long shot where Holly sees Anna for the last time. "Midway in the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path." Holly (or is he Holy?), a writer of Zane Grey-like westerns doesn't know about The Inferno, until he's caught in one. BTW the movie's jagged angularity set the style for Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) and Orson Welles's The Trial (1962).

listen to the playlist for The Kafka Studies Department on Largehearted Boy

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Universe

Black Hole at the center of Messier 87

There are centripetal and centrifugal forces, dark matter and energy and a number called a cosmological constant. Pi, the radius of any circle divided by the circumference is always the same infinite number beginning 3.14159... .  The Pythagorean theorem states that the area of the square created by the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides. Energy according to the theory of relativity equals mass times the speed of light squared. The square root of minus one is an imaginary number.
 3,5,7, 11,13, 17 and 19 are all prime numbers because they can’t be factored. You can find primes all through the infinity of numbers though the spaces between them get larger than larger like the distances between stars. The only difference is that numerology is a form of synthetic a priori knowledge that is unchanging while because of dark energy stars grow increasing far from each other—a phenomenon which accounts for the darkening of the universe. The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return.

listen to "You Make My Dreams" by Hall and Oates

and also listen to Joan Baum's NPR review of The Kafka Studies Department

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The Kingdom of Death

Gulliver discovers Laputa (J.J. Grandville)

Is Death a kingdom? Well it terms of vastness you'll be dead far longer than the comparatively minuscule amount of time you're here on earth. Lilliput and Bromdingnag--Swift's Gullivarian geography come in handy. However,there are more things in heaven and earth than accounted for in your Psychogeography, Mr Sebald. The universe is composed of trillions of galaxies and galaxies like the Milky Way in turn comprise billions of stars, The Big Bang in which the most elementary building block of life was created, the boson, occurred 13.8 million years ago--which is nothing if you take into consideration the nothing or ether that preceded it. Thought a quality of homo sapien life is the villain. In order to justify their existence prehensile hominids need to create a narrative in the way that philosophers provide the ideology for revolutions, cogito ergo sum. Sum ergo cogito, "I am therefore I think" is actually the truer axiom. In the state of being humankind needs to think of itself as grander than the footnote it really is. Otherwise nothing makes sense--which is, for that matter, a universal truth.

read the review of The Kafka Studies Department in Booklife

and listen to "You'll Never Walk Alone" by Patti Labelle and the Bluebells

Monday, January 1, 2024

The Men's Room

"The Source" by Gustave Courbet 

Das ewige weibliche zeiht uns hinan 
said Goethe. Is it however perfection or idealization? And does it take a material or spiritual form? In L'Avventura (1960), Antonioni portrayed through Monica Vitti, a balance between eros and ethereality.  Bertolucci knelt to Dominique Sanda in The Conformist (1970) and literally ravished Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris (1972) through his proxy Marlon Brando (who raped her for the sake of verisimilitude in the famous butter scene). The Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers was cast by both Pasolini, First Name Carmen (1983), and Bellocchio Devil in the Flesh (1986), for her "natural" look (in specific her dramatic Venus mound). The wanton pose of the model in Courbet's "L'Origin du Monde" (1886) continues to be a "piece de scandal."  But where is the end? Fantasy may be materialized but can it be consummated?

read the Kirkus review of The Kafka Studies Department by Francis Levy

and watch the animation of Erotomania