Thursday, August 30, 2012

Quote of the Evening

Il DeAngelo: FACT: If you say a lie 10 times, it's truth. (Note: don't fact check that)

Quote of the Day

Der Fersko:  You know between Bush, McCain and Romney the     GOP is becoming a great collection for idiot sons

800 Words: Dear Sage - An FLC Letter

Dear Sage,

One of your murderers must now say goodbye to you having only heard of your murder two years after it happened.  Roughly six months after I broke off contact with you, you jumped in front of a train just like Anna Karenina. I hope it was as quick as you  clearly meant for it to be, but however quick it was, and whatever better place you may be in right now, I can’t help it if I feel responsible. I failed you, just as so many others did.

By your own telling, your parents were as ill-equipped to understand the nature of your illness as any parents could be.  You were left alone, utterly unattended, kicked out of community college and living by yourself on a miniscule stipend with barely a friend for comfort. It was then that you reached out to me. I cannot lie, I dreaded your phone calls – knowing that my nights would be over the moment you called because I first had to talk you up from your horrendous depression, and then listen to your rambling conspiracy theories about the resurrection of international communism or some class of illuminati you planned to join by enlisting in the CIA (never mind how contradictory your theories were). To hear this once-great mind which could write a Dante parody that would impress the original and expound on the greatness of Moby Dick or mathematics with an eloquence that could astound the world was too tragic to bear. Every time I hung up the phone, I could only think to myself ‘there but by the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go I.’

Your calls became more frequent, your obsessions still odder, and then you left a message on my facebook wall and my voicemail so creepily bizarre, and spoken in such an inhuman monotone…. I seized the opportunity and did the ultimate immature signoff – the facebook de-friend – and never returned your next hysterically emotional voicemail, the tone of which will now haunt me forever.  After that, I half expected you to show up on my doorstep unannounced for a year afterward. When that never happened, I figured that you did what we all had to do at Hyde – you found a way to keep going. Against odds that seemed overwhelming, I and so many others we knew found ways to keep clawing at life even after the thousand times when we thought it might as well be over. Perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to the thought that life, as difficult as it is, can be endured.

Yours is the tenth death of a student I’ve heard of from my time at Hyde (that I can remember): Ian Worth, Maggie Miller, Al Vico, Jeff Boiselle, Scott Thomas, Drew Llewellyn, Jon Ogan, Meg Lavin, and Rob Ebling (the last one I now realize I forget where I heard it, …though I eventually told you, another terrible mistake I made since he was a good friend of yours…). One mutual friend of ours tells me he’s heard of at least five more deaths. Of the people I just named, the only people I was particularly friendly with were Al Vico and Scott Thomas – and neither were particularly close. The rest of them I felt somewhere between a vague liking and vague contempt. Nevertheless, every one of those deaths made me sad. At a New England prep school whose enrollment was rarely ever over two-hundred, ten by age 30 is a terrifying figure. Perhaps it’s acceptable when you think of the high-risk behavior involved in arriving at Hyde in the first place, but it’s still far too many. I used to think I’d hear of another death every year. But I heard about you and Meg Lavin on the same day. As we reach our thirties, will the death tolls now increase to two from year to year? And which of my old friends is next? Is it me?

Even had you not reached out to me, and even had I not spurned you, I believe your death might have hit me harder than any other person’s death from those years could have. From the moment you arrived on campus, people commented on our similarities – in appearance, in demeanor, in the way we talked, in our interests. We were far more alike than I am to my own brothers, and to then see someone so close to a mirror image of myself reduced to such a state as yours… how could I bare to hear from it?

How the hell did kids like us fall through the cracks so far as to end up at Hyde? We didn’t need 2-4, we needed valets. I grieve for all those kids we’ve lost, but I grieve for you more – because you were smarter, because you could have contributed more, because the world will never know how many dark places such a brilliant mind could illuminate. Of all those cruelties Hyde perpetrated, was there anything so cruel as to tell smart kids whose problems originated in part from encountering bullies that our problems were no different from theirs’? The bullies at Hyde always flourished, because they found new ways to bully everybody else. But the smart, introverted kids who just needed a little patience, we were more bullied than ever – with even the moral high ground stolen from us and given to them.  

The true believers at Hyde were not evil, they were just idiots – dangerous idiots, but idiots nevertheless. They weren’t interested in money, they were interested in converts, and they believed every word they told us. They were weak people who needed a system to fall back on as badly as you did at the end. Had their lives taken different paths, they would have fallen back on Opus Dei Catholicism, or radical Islam, or fascism, or scientology, or any other system which tells them that they could destroy a person’s sense of self and build a new, greater one in its place. And if the process of making that greater self entails monstrous cruelty in the service of a greater good, they administer it happily. If ideals are turned into crimes, the crimes are always justified. Those Neanderthals truly believed that they would make their students’ lives better, and another cruel irony is that in the cases of some particularly dumb students, they probably did. But for others, they made lives so much worse. The true believers lied to us by saying that they were doing good, and the smarter people at Hyde lied to the true believers by telling them we believed their idiocies. I was too depressed, crazy, delusional even, at that point in my life to keep up the wall of doubt to everything I was told – sometimes I even believed their lies. But you, far more self-confident at that point in your life, were never taken in by those morons, and oh how I envy you now.

Yes, Sage, I envy you. I don’t envy your end, but I envy your mind. The average Hyde kid was not exactly a genius, and any conversation with someone of above-average intelligence in those years was worth its weight in gold to a kid so starved for real education as I was. But to this day, I maintain that your mind at its best could have held its own with the highest of Harvard and MIT. I was a mere LD kid who could (and can) only operate the right-side-of-my-brain, but your mind was a pristine engine. You could have succeeded in anything – as a scientist, mathematician, writer, businessman, lawyer, whatever you decided to do. But like so many brilliant lights in this world, it came in fragile casing – and by the time you returned to my life, the bulb was broken.

Would you have gone off the deep end without Hyde? Almost certainly. Hyde already has enough to answer for without being called to answer for the things it didn’t do. But I can’t help it if the thought occurs to me that you might not have gone that far… Hyde is the last organization that should be consulted in how to deal with mental illness. And I’m absolutely convinced that anyone already nursing such an illness is that much more likely to contract a worse one by being there. All those years, you were clearly nursing the potential for an illness far greater than we even knew. Some people with great minds have all the luck; their brilliance is born to the right circumstances, nurtured correctly by family, noticed by the right friends, and they end up getting honorary degrees at Yale. Others end up ramming themselves into a train, forgotten by the world even before they had a chance to be remembered.

Would anyone who knew us then have thought that you’d be dead and I’d be the one … at least remotely approaching a success? Like you, I live alone. Unlike you, I have a family that is reasonably understanding of our condition. I don’t know how much help I am, but I’m a partner in the family business, I have more friends than I ever know what to do with, I have creative outlets, I have a second job as a choral conductor and also free-lance as a violinist. I write every day, and I have never known a better remedy for keeping the dogs at bay. For the moment, I can honestly say that life has blessed me rather well, and now more than ever I can only wish that it did the same for you.

Six-and-a-half years ago, I watched a friend and neighbor sink further and further into depression – every day withdrawing a little more into his private world until he finally no longer responded to people’s queries. I recognized the symptoms, but I did nothing – thinking that as it does for me, the black dog would somehow let up before it became too serious to return from.  One day, I was stunned to find him coming into my room, he was even talking, telling us ‘I’m going away for a while, you won’t see me for a long time…’, I was too stunned to say anything back, and yet I still did not put two and two together. An hour-and-a-half later, Alex had jumped to his death from his fifth-floor apartment in Southern Israel. How could I be so blind, yet again, to the symptoms? I cannot fool myself any longer, it is all too possible that one day the person with these symptoms will be me, and other people will be just as blind. I have no way of knowing if or when, and it certainly won’t be any time soon. But even in my most joyful moments (and I’ve known enough), I can no longer forget that that agony may lurk round the corner. Nevertheless, to this moment, I can still say to the Black Dog and all its bites, ‘Not Yet!’

Depression is the cruelest of all possible illnesses; I truly believe that and probably always will. It is the only illness in the world that renders it impossible to recognize any way in which we are still blessed. It cuts through all rationality and all reality, causing us to see the world only through its prism – and like barbed wire, the harder we try to free ourselves of its tangle, the more it entangles us. There is no thinking oneself out of depression; there are only small preventative steps which we can take that can hopefully appease it. Because for all our developments in science, we still know barely more about the human brain than we did in the Middle Ages.

I have to be realistic, one day, this illness may claim me just as it did you and Alex. If this illness were ever to return with a virulence I’ve still never known, I can only hope that we meet in a better world – a world we can both embrace with nothing but joy. Wherever it will be, if it’s not a world without depression then I don’t want to go. There, flying spaghetti monster be praised, our minds can no longer torment us. Goodbye Sage and I hope you’re happier now. We all do.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

800 Words: The Sorry, Myopic State of American Theater

(West Side Story: The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry, and constant breaking into abstract highbrow ballet whose movements make no sense as often as they do. Such is the unfortunate, confused, ridiculous plight of American theater, which still hasn’t found sure footing 236 years after the founding of the country.)

Friday night was as good a night as a person will get from American theater today. August Osage County is probably the most endlessly praised, talked about and commented upon American play since Angels in America, and with good reason. It is a play that seamlessly plants the most painful, debased aspects of human existence within a Himalayan mountain of comedy. I can’t think of any American movie in the new millennium that exposes more of the dark crevasses of human existence. For more than twenty-four hours after I saw it, the twisted, macabre mood of this play remained very much with me.
But there’s something about this play that feels utterly synthetic. There isn’t a single scene in this script that doesn’t feel cribbed from some other play which all of us who’ve sat through high school and college friends’ ill-advised attempts at artistic greatness have seen before: The fucked-up intellectual family in a claustrophobic house, the realist chamber drama, characters who grapple with the terrifying silence of secrets, grappling with addiction, infidelity, incest, racism, and pedophilia. Just in America, we’ve again and again praised as masters playwrights who’ve covered all these same issues on stage - O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, Neil Simon, August Wilson and Sam Shepard, and even before it came to America we can watch all sorts of similar discussions in Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. There is something about the issues discussed in this play that feels so endlessly rehashed, so totally completely indebted to its predecessors, that I (no expert on theater) find it nearly impossible to pick out what’s original from everything I’ve seen before. Another matriarch addicted to painkillers? Another precocious teenage girl falling for a sociopathic predator? More families beating the shit out of each other? More breaking dishes? More incest? More relatives gone missing? More half-century long family secrets? The whole thing plays like an encyclopedia of every shock we’ve experienced in the last 150 years of world drama.

The production too was as good as we were probably ever going to get in nearly anywhere in America today outside New York, LA and Chicago. Yet the whole night relied upon our good faith to continually suspend disbelief from minute to minute. There were some truly fabulous actors on stage, but among the thirteen different principles, there were thirteen different accents in spite of the fact that 11 of these characters were supposed to hail from the same hometown. All three of the sisters (Chekhov anyone?) were superb, yet all three were clearly ten years too young for their roles and far too pretty. The father was supposed to be a bookworm whose books dominated the house with their oppressive weight, yet his erudition was represented by a single lonely bookshelf. Rather than give us the great music of Oklahoma during the scene changes (like Woody Guthrie or Wallis Willis or Wanda Jackson…a lot of W’s in that state…), or even something ironic like Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, the transitions were accompanied by African drumbeats, as though to hit us over the head with the fact that this family exists in a primitive state of nature… I can’t be the only person who read something uncomfortably close to racism in that. All the characters constantly commented that the mother never turned on the air conditioning and the house was constantly 90 degrees, yet the entire four-hour play was accompanied by the blasting hum of an air conditioning unit, keeping us all quite comfortable in a 70 degree theater. The cumulative effect was not to transport you to Oklahoma but like a great staged reading in which you had to take on faith that if people tried harder, they could make a truly great night for us. Instead, it felt like a troop of talented amateurs, utterly adrift without a competent director to combine their talents into a coherent vision. It’s an experience that makes you sad for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve tried doing theater at various points in my life – as an actor, as a director, even as a theater musician, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t usually regret the experience. I don’t know if it was always true of actors, but I can’t deny the fact that I neither much like most theater people or that most theater people don’t much like me; and to talk about why, I have to traffic not only in empirical evidence but in stereotyping. I don’t know if it was always true that actors and singers were known throughout world history as grade-A narcissists (they were probably too poor and ignored for most of history to be thought of that way), but that is the abiding stereotype of them today, and I wish I hadn’t accumulated so much evidence to bear that out. It’s not to say that I don’t’ know many actors and singers who aren’t perfectly nice people who pay their taxes and wouldn’t burn heretics if given the chance; but whether it was enduring the tantrums of actors and singers because I asked them to do something one too many times, or watching another director chew out an actor as a ‘liar’ or a conductor telling his singers that he wants to ‘kill’ them, or watching so many of these same people make make inappropriate scenes in their personal lives, I can’t deny there is something creepily self-centered about so many stage animals that make me prefer leaving their company to others who like them more – or at least ditching them to hang out with the techies. The claustrophobic vulnerability required in life as a contemporary actor seems to make people who become actors a bit nutty, or maybe they were already nutty and just needed an outlet for it. For a person like me who’d prefer to be less nutty than he already is, he would do much better to take up painting or join a band or an orchestra. It’s much easier to get along with artists and instrumentalists than singers and actors – acting and singing is based on showing off your ‘person’, whereas playing an instrument or painting a canvas requires the humility to say that you need an extra tool which your body does not already have to create something beautiful. Perhaps this lack of humility is also inherent in writers, but at least I can hide behind the fact that I’m also an instrumental musician.

I have no idea what causes narcissism in people; is it inherent in a person’s genes, or does the environment of a person’s upbringing provide for it? And if so, is it too much pressure in a person's upbringing or too little? And maybe I’m completely wrong about theater people and just trafficking in the kind of offensive stereotyping that would make them angry (not that that wouldn’t delight me…). But what I can’t ignore is the fact that there are two competing strands in American theater that seem to speak to precisely this sort of narcissism of which I’m speaking.

 (Somehow, when you no longer believe in American optimism…Rogers and Hammerstein doesn’t make much sense, does it?)

Fundamentally speaking, I can see two traditions in American theater that are alive and ‘well’ – music theater and ‘straight’ theater. Music theater, for all its exceptions, seems to have very deep roots in escapism – do Rogers and Hammerstein musicals have anything to do with the realities of Oklahoma, Siam, or the South Pacific? Does Andrew Lloyd Webber (British as he is…) appear to have any real knowledge of Argentina, The Bible, or alley cats? If you find yourself particularly drawn to these pieces, and many, many people are, you’re being drawn to a world of imagination – and frankly not the world of a particularly fascinating imagination. There are more exciting escapist visions; better researched, more excitingly done – anyone who’s seen a Kander & Ebb musical (Chicago & Cabaret) knows that there’s nothing wrong with escapism if you mean to escape to somewhere interesting.

(A Long Day’s Journey Into Night – take your suffering like a man!)

But then there’s the world of plain, ‘straight’ theater. I can’t imagine that somebody didn’t come up with the title ‘straight theater’ as a way of implying that music theater is effeminate. And perhaps even now such a stereotype works all too well, because so many ‘straight’ American plays require you to sit in your seat and take your dose of suffering like a ‘man.’ In such a tradition, we’re introduced to the sadomasochistic abusiveness of characters from Eugene O’Neil, the false hope of Arthur Miller’s protagonists, the sexual repression of Tenessee Williams’s, the savage ironies of Edward Albee, and the still more savage ones of David Mamet. Each of these writers are tragedians, but not in the Greek sense in which a great man falls from his height – because in America it’s only a tragedy if you never were great. In America, the most tragic state is to be a small person, and then realize how small you are. In such plays, there is very little catharsis as the Greeks would define it. We pity Oedipus and Orestes for how far they’ve fallen; they were once superior to us, and are now our inferiors – and that creates a certain awed distance from them which we can no longer have. Neither Willy Loman nor Blanche DuBois have any height to fall from – at no point in their lives were they living anything but the nightmare in which the play began – and their nightmares are all too similar to ours. By the end of these plays, we don’t feel purged of our demons, we feel inflamed by them. If life is only joyless heartbreak, then why do we even go to the theater?  For O’Neill and his descendents, the theater becomes a prison of inward focus; a queezily intense, claustrophobic place which perhaps is a perfect reflection of the kind of environment that makes people crave the stage in the first place. So many of these plays are monuments to empty drama – making us feel tension almost past the point of exploitation, and it becomes tension without release. You leave Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet feeling elated from spasm after spasm of tragic delight – you leave Long Day’s Journey Into Night wondering how you’ll ever get out of bed the next morning.  Again, there are exceptions to this rule. Anyone who’s ever seen a high school production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town knows that the inconsequential, suffocating lives so often portrayed on the American stage can have purpose and true dignity. In a different way, the same is true of Angels in America, or the Pittsburgh Cycle, or Porgy and Bess, or A Raisin in the Sun, or The Music Man, or even The Crucible (if you squint…).

In either the case of musical theater or ‘straight’ theater, it would appear that America produces a brand of theater so myopic, so inwardly focused on either the suffering of the self or escaping from it, that its achievements can’t help but be miniscule compared to American achievements in movies, television, popular music, perhaps even novels and poetry. In spite of these exceptions, or perhaps because they’re mere exceptions, American theater has produced neither much great music nor a great linguistic outpouring, or even enough memorable characters. So many of the great American playwrights seem to flame out after just a few plays, not even capable of writing three plays which are accepted worldwide as unimpeachable masterworks. Eugene O’Neill has The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and after those two everybody starts debating which of the others are great. Tennessee Williams got The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire before everybody started debating exactly where he began to decline (I think it started in Streetcar…). Arthur Miller has Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and All My Sons has lots of champions, but then… Lorraine Hansberry had A Raisin in the Sun, and died before she wrote a worthy followup. No two theatergoers seem to agree on which the best Sam Shepherd plays are. And no two theatergoers agree on whether David Mamet is any good at all. Some feel Neil Simon is trivial, everybody's forgotten about Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets, and most have never heard of Horton Foote or Lanford Wilson (I’m pretty sure I don’t even know a play of either of theirs, I just know they exist…). Compared to all those master creators we have from movies, from television, from the best in rock and jazz, American theater provides us with preciously few insights into human beings, preciously little music worth remembering, and preciously few characters vivid enough to take with us into our lives. Aside from all the others from Britian’s peerless theatrical tradition, England has hundreds of characters merely from Shakespeare which no one will ever forget having met them for the first time. Norway and Sweden, countries with one-sixtieth our population where the claustrophobia we find in American drama was truly earned, we have all those characters from Ibsen and Strindberg: Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, Brand, Emperor Julian, Soleness, Nora, Hilda, Jacob Hummell, Miss Julie, The Stranger, Laura, and all their surrounding galleries… but among the similarly living, breathing, unforgettable characters embedded in a larger American consciousness, we have Willy Loman, Amanda Wingfield, Blanche and Stanley, the Stage Manager in Our Town, George and Martha, maybe Roy Cohn, David Mamet’s fuck patois… and that’s about it.

The comparison with England is particularly sad. In the land of Shakespeare, it can’t be denied that theat(re)er simply means means more to them than it does to us. It is the very foundation of their cultural identity as much as movies are the foundation of ours. And it also can’t be denied that the greatest plays on the British Isles, whether the English bedrock of the human condition which Shakespeare is (or his contemporaries like Marlowe or Jonson), or the Irish-English comedy of ideas that is Shaw and Wilde, have an open-air scope of the world which nearly any American play I can think of cannot possibly touch.

Last Friday night, I was in London, at a production of Julius Caesar by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was truly a production of the world – Julius Caesar done with an all-black cast as an African dictatorship. Julius Caesar is, to say the least, an imperfect Shakespeare play, with at least as many dull scenes as there are that catch fire. The action seemed endlessly rethought, with Caesar conveying his belief in Cassius’s potential treachery in front of all his subjects and portraying Brutus and Cassius’s fractiousness as a civil war within the civil war (as so many third-world civil wars become). The result was something that could only happen with a director in charge who has a bottomless command of Shakespeare’s text, and actors who took what they were doing with the utmost seriousness and integrity. The results spoke for themselves, and the makeup of the audience spoke of that wonderfully. A full half of the sold-out audience was black, and with as much diversity in age as color. This was truly Shakespeare for everybody, intended to convey a universal message which you did not have to be of any particular creed to understand. How many times do you see such a diverse audience for any show of any type in contemporary America?

Perhaps the problem isn’t American theater, perhaps the problem is theater itself. Perhaps the whole idea of theater has become so weighed down over the centuries by realism, by scenery, by the demands of production value, by the demands of professional actors and theater workers, that it simply can’t take the same flights of imagination which we see in King Lear, in Tartuffe, in The Simpsons…

The theater of Shakespeare’s time was infinitely more flexible. There was no scenery to change and the actors were mostly tradesmen who were simply happy to be onstage or working behind the scenes. There was no way of describing action or atmosphere without words, and one scene could begin at the very second another ended. The stage jutted out so far into the audience’s purview that solilioquies could be delivered in a much more intimate manner than today’s stages allow for (unless the stage is miked…). The Shakespeare plays were not just plays, they were complete entertainments – meant to service everyone from those who craved sublimity to those who preferred vulgarity. It was a complete dramatic, poetic experiment of a type that was only possible because an artform was being birthed – and there were few if any rules as yet to be followed. By the time of Moliere, there was scenery and an insistence on Aristotle’s rules of unity which made it virtually impossible for comedy and tragedy to intermingle. By the time of Ibsen, Shakespeare’s romantic notions of drama had grown so sclerotic that the best dramatists had to do away with soliloquies, blank verse, and diversity of action. Instead of watching a whole story, we watch lives unfold in their most dramatic moments. We still dine on this model, and the end result is that theater, like classical music, still subsists on models invented in the 19th century.

Even in England, they’re still chewing the comedy of ideas which George Bernard Shaw formed from one of Ibsen’s limbs. English playwrights can out-intense Americans at the claustrophobic drama game – watch Harold Pinter or Alan Ayckbourne if you want to see how intense Brits can make things onstage (be prepared). But among the elder generation of British dramatists, there is a bevy, a veritable gaggle, of dramatists who traffic primarily in ideas: Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Peter Shaffer, Ronald Harwood, David Hare, Alan Bennett,,. It’s not exactly an approach to drama that seems to be granted a much longer life than it already has, but it’s healthier than ours and shows that book learning still has a place on their stages even if it doesn’t on our’s.

Is there any hope for American theater? Have there been any truly great creators of it whose total you could stack against the greatest dramatists of history, or the greatest filmmakers among their contemporaries? Well…yes, probably two, one of whom is great enough that perhaps all this grousing is completely unnecessary. Two is a paltry number, but for the ‘posterity’ game, two may be all that’s needed to add a fourth name to the SMI (Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen) Index.

Leaving aside David Mamet who is as much a moviemaker as he is a playwright, there are only two theatrical writers who to me have managed beyond dispute to build a career of masterful play after masterful play out of all the wreckage which surrounds them.  

(In case you’re wondering what people 300 years from now will regard as the classic of narcissistic upper-middle class urban alienation, it’s probably Company. A claustrophobic American drama which suggests that life may be beautiful all the same.)

One is Stephen Sondheim – a theatrical creator on the level of Shakespeare and Mozart who built a world apart from the movies that let him use Broadway as a laboratory to grow human beings realer than real humans. Is Sondheim truly on their level? Well, maybe…. for linguistic command he may be the one stage writer of all time who can box in Shakespeare’s ring, and even if his musicals are generally not made of the same life-or-death stuff as Shakespeare, their characters do feel extraordinarily real. But his most amazing quality is that he’s done all this during the most fallow possible period. Sondheim has taken the insipid banalities of music theater and created something miraculous out of them – a complete entertainment that challenges intellectually, inspires serious pathos as much humor, and provides dozens of memorable characters (especially his women…Joanne, Desiree Armfeldt, Sally Durant Plummer, Dot, the Witch, and Fosca), any one of which could become as iconic as Sweeney Todd and Mamma Rose in another fifty years. History may show that he is the new way forward for drama – and dramatists, who now have more to do with song lyricists than prose, have at least as much to chew on for as long as they have with Ibsen. Posterity has an odd way of connecting people who should never be connected, and Sondheim may be remembered as the shadow-twin of Bob Dylan. Both of them were far, far more impressive lyricists than they were composers, and their music – so to speak - is nothing but a glove on which to fit some of the most complicated, poetic, mythical lyrics that will ever be written.  The themes of Dylan’s music generally look toward the future and toward the folk music of the forgotten man, Sondheim looks nostalgically toward a world of sophistication now forgotten and wistfully remembers the gin-soaked urbanities of the 20’s cocktail bar. Oddly enough, because he was shielded from the frustrations of the movie industry, his impact may one day turn out to be larger than any American moviemaker of his time. And yet even Sondheim found the circumstances in which he created theater to be so difficult that for the last twenty years he’s barely produced any new musicals – he's now in his early eighties and long since unable to summon the fortitude to keep going at the blistering pace he once set. In a better world, we’d have had twice as many Sondheim musicals as we do now. 

(The Piano Lesson. An American answer to The Cherry Orchard set among a black family in The Depression)

The other is August Wilson, whose achievement is in some ways more astounding than Sondheim’s. Sondheim was the son of Manhattan socialites with a degree from Williams College who became a writer of musicals because he grew up as the next-door neighbor of Oscar Hammerstein. August Wilson was a high-school dropout who educated himself by going to the public library. But the rather condescending calculus of overcoming adversity doesn’t do him justice. What makes Wilson amazing is the gallery of characters: Boy Willie and Wining Boy, Troy and Cory Maxon, Bynum and Loomis – caught in historical forces past anything within their control. The fact that these characters are black frees them from the confines of ‘proper’ English language, allowing them to express themselves with a memorable distinctness that is entirely missing from Wilson’s white counterparts. Wilson is the modern master of American plays, and while it’s good that he lived to complete the Pittsburgh cycle, it’s a shame he couldn’t write any more afterwards.

But the fact that there are so few with a consistently awesome achievement makes it all the more sad when compared to the larger worlds of movies and TV. While O’Neill, Miller and Williams were exploring the suffocating inbred air of the single-room chamber drama; Welles, Hitchcock and Hawks were taking the entire world into their gaze. Whereas Mamet, Neil LaBute and Tracy Letts are perpetually stuck on shock mode, we have series like The Sopranos and Mad Men for which shock is just one weapon in an encyclopedic arsenal. Whereas Shakespeare could get through seven scenes in twenty minutes, we’re lucky now if we get through the prologue in that amount of time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Posts I'd Have Written Part 5

19. Left Conservatives - In the last ten years, we've seen the deaths of Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Oriana Fallaci, Norman Mailer, Jean Baudrillard, Kurt Vonnegut, Tony Judt, Howard Zinn, Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn, and now Gore Vidal. It's beginning to look as though a particular type of figure is dying out - the man of leftist letters with the education of an aristocrat, and the inclinations of a revolutionary (can Noam Chomsky be far behind?), utilizing the methods of Marx to achieve the ends of Edmund Burke. Each of these writers was part-brilliant, part crackpot - espousing revolutionary causes with such fervor that they picked up some conservative causes along the way as a means to expedite their visions of justice more swiftly. For large parts of almost all their lives, they were either Europeans living in America or Americans living in Europe. The result was that each arrived at their own vision of a progressive pseudo-liberalism that had a special kind of obsessive love-hate of the United States as its core. Their record of bringing about revolutionary change is frankly the opposite of impressive - for the last 45 years, the most influential governments have largely been run by neo-liberals and conservatives who want to cut government programs and roll back all the progressive gains made post World War II. Theirs is a generation that has, however, done a fantastic job of showing people how a wide-ranging education has failed to create the better world to which we should all aspire - making them perhaps the last generation of writers for whom a wide-ranging classical education is a given. We now live in a world of their making, where conservatives rule because progressives are not willing to make the compromises necessary to govern, and an 'intellectual' is a person of such narrow specialty that none of their successors have read widely enough over a diversity of subjects to see connections across disciplines. They did not bring us closer to the better world they wanted us to envision, they drew us further away.
These figures had at least as much in common with conservatism as liberalism because ultimately they came to views of the dispossessed which only a rich person could have - glorifying the oppressed's travails in the abstract without serious thought as to how those pains could be remedied. In each of them, there was a marked streak of entitlement group-think which so many over-privileged feel and then assuage any insecurity over it by claiming that all people deserve the privileges they have. Well, yes, other people deserve their privileges, but do they give serious thought as to how it can come about? Responsibility is a terribly difficult thing, and it's all too convenient to blame people in power if they're clearly trying their best against people who wish them ill and all the people which good politicans try to help. Nearly all of them came to despair of the next progressive generation, which instead taking up their struggle to banish tyranny from the world, finds the smallest outrages at which to take offense as a means to implement a forced, ersatz form of multi-culturalism where every special interest can claim special privileges and attention which would inevitably come at the expense of every other interest group.  But they were kidding themselves, these were the creators the next progressive generation. And the real liberalism espoused by the followers of Rossevelt, Truman, Atlee, and Helmut Schmidt might actually involve sacrifice, and therefore was nowhere near as attractive because it had a chance of working, and therefore might compromise their privileged status. How very conservative they were. Which brings us to...

20. The Expatriot -  There is a specific type of first-worlder particularly given to extensive travel, to living abroad, and using such an act as an excuse to reject everything about whence they came. It's one thing to leave a place where one has deep roots because it's become truly impossible to live there happily, or because of a good opportunity in work or love elsewhere, but it's quite another to leave home because living in the place where one has roots is merely irritating. Driving this sentiment is often both a childish wish for instant gratification which insists on rejecting everything because some things don't work, and a kind of dangerous superficiality that allows people to give up on their roots and chase whatever new system comes their way for the simple reason that any system has to be better than the allegedly dysfunctional one in which they grew up. The truth remains that in their minds, they are still living in their homelands, perhaps more than they ever would be if they still lived in their home town/country. Roots are not something nearly so easily shorn, and the more one runs them down the more mental space they occupy. Staying as close to home as possible to be under the monolithic control of roots is not a legitimate option for happiness, but neither is the shedding of all allegiances.  

21. Why I Get Mad at the Left - One of the things which has long troubled me on this blog is how much of my political ire seems reserved for left-wing causes rather than right-wing. It’s a habit that’s long since grown ingrained in me, and try as I might, I can’t seem to shake it. There was a time, about five-minutes long as a high school senior after Bush v Gore, when I was utterly leftier than thou - trying to be a vegan, helping bring in leftist guest speakers for politically active students (one particularly memorable one told us to inspect our tap water for fluoridation), and perhaps most embarrassing of all to me now, claiming that all holocaust remembrances were a fetishizing excuse to neglect all the genocides that are still happening. I don’t doubt part of this ire is an unconscious form of penance.  
It’s a habit which goes back at least to college when I saw so many other students spouting slogans with no thought deeper than 5 words at a time. From conservatives I expected this - it’s a political movement like any other and needs nothing more than to surrender your mind to groupthink to be accepted in the group (which I suppose explains why so many seemingly intelligent Republicans seem to turn into slogan machines when politics come up). But liberalism is supposed to be a philosophy that requires education, skepticism, and self-reliant thought - and yet all around me I saw people falling for Howard Dean’s demagoguery, conflating Israel with the most evil regimes the world had ever seen, and boiling the complex (and still nefarious) motives of the Iraq war down to nothing more than war profiteering. What I saw from so many people was not liberalism by any definition I understood, it was the exact same groupthink of the overprivileged which one finds in conservative circles. If you read no books, you can still be a member of the hard right. If you read one book, you can be a member of the hard left.
As many emotionally bruised right-wing relatives and friends can attest, I haven’t a conservative bone in my body. But I can’t deny that I don’t feel much inspiration in writing about what’s wrong with right-wingers. I know what’s wrong with the Right, nearly everybody who regularly reads this blog knows what’s wrong with the Right. Would there be a single person who’d be more enlightened at the end of a post about why Republican beliefs are mendacious than they were at the beginning? Even if I agree that at least 90% of conservative beliefs run contrary to any sense of a positive society, what could I possibly add to understanding those beliefs that can’t be found on a thousand different blogs by people much better credentialed (and occasionally better informed:) than I?  
I’d like to think that in a well-functioning society, I am a liberal squarely in the center of discourse, neither socialist nor conservative. I want a government run by reliable people who can give the facts on any issue then find the best possible (and never the ideal) solution. But contemporary America is not that society, it is clearly a society run by disproportionately conservative values - and therefore by the American standards of 2012, I am quite to the left-of-center.
The political spectrum isn’t a straight line from right to left, it’s a sphere in which some forms of conservatism resemble socialism and vice versa, a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative may well have many more beliefs in common than two left-wingers, and the amount of commonality may pale in comparison to the amount which two extremists from opposite wings have. When Hitler was looking for brownshirt recruits, the first place he looked was the Communist party, for whom he instituted a complete forgiveness policy because he knew that Communists would make far more devoted converts than any ex-democrat.
If there is one thing which left-wing and right-wing share, it is expectations of life that are far too high. Has anyone taught these people yet that nothing in life will come as we hope it does?

21. What Was Lost

(Tchaikovsky's Manfred - an extremely imperfect work that will haunt your dreams for decades after you hear it. From the last time it was performed at the Proms, just as great, though different...more on that in a later mini-post.)

On Saturday I went to the first of four nights of Proms in a row. I saw the amazing Vladimir Jurowski conduct the London Philharmonic and the main work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. For the first time in too long, I had a few truly transcendent, out of body moments while listening to music. The performance of the first movement particularly was so perfectly controlled yet so passionate that parts of it seemed like frozen moments of animal agony, yet those moments made you feel completely alive - obliterating any wall that distances you from the music. It's generally good not to have those moments too often, which would turn you into the musical equivalent of an adrenalin junkie (go to any punk show to see what that's like). But to be without them is to live in a prison of your own thoughts (which is in some ways why I imagine the 19th century bourgoise needed music like Tchaikovsky's and Wagner's which let them escape that prison so easily).
I subscribe very much to that antiquated 19th century belief that music exists to express emotions. Music is a language like any other langugage, but it is the langugage of suggestion and hypnosis - with different sounds resounding in our ears as redolent of various emotions. There is plenty of music in the twentieth century that is just as expressive of emotions as anything in Tchaikovsky - but what I miss terribly in so much of 20th century music is the sheer articulate specificity of what romantic-era music expresses. So many popular musical genres depend so much on spontenaiety, and while it's a wonderful experience in its particular way, it's a completely different experience from music written in the 19th century (which we mistakenly call 'Classical').. When we listen to jazz, or rap, or heavy metal, we are partaking in the enjoyment of indistinct, spontaneous emotion from each fleeting moment, caught utterly on the fly. And perhaps that's exactly what we need to feel most in our hyper-regimented, exactly organized societies. But in such an environment, it becomes that much harder feel a diversity of emotions, and to associate different sounds and chords with happiness and sadness, laughter and tears, compassion and anger.
It's the same with our transfer of allegiance from literature to cinema and TV. Novels, short stories, non-fiction, and even certain types of poetry (back when poetry was narrative) and theater (at least in the age of the solilioquy) allow us to articulate the thoughts of characters as they happen; because in a sense, everything which happens to these characters also happens to us. We are literally thinking along with the other person, and like classical music, it is a technique that brings us as close to telepathy as the world has given us. But in the age of screen entertainment, the best we can do is read the implications of what the director is telling us. The characters no longer describe their feelings, they transmit them by facial expressions and what remains unsaid, and it's up to us to read between the lines.
Emerson has that great line I keep quoting on this blog, why stop now? 'In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty.' It's a quote I've come to love more and more as I get older. The most important thing which 'great art' does, regardless of genre, is to bring us out of our shelves and make us realize that other people have experienced those things we have experienced. Vladimir Nabokov called this sort of identification of the self with works of art an 'adolescent pleasure.' In Nabokov's world, art is no different than an ingenious game or puzzle in which all that truly matters is the mechanics - if all of us were like Nabokov and had no need for an unsterile version of art that lets us identify with what we see, perhaps we'd have no need for drama and poetry because we'd all be too busy playing chess and jigsaw puzzles, or collecting butterflies. But apparently we need music and stories and pictures nearly as much as we need to breathe, and we need them because they make us less lonely. If a person had no struggles in his life, he would have no need for anything that consoles him. As it happens, we have struggles. And the result is that we still listen to Tchaikovsky.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Posts I'd Have Written Part 4

14. Urbanities - When modern New York was first built, it cearly had Paris in mind - the gigantism of its high-rise apartments, the huge avenues, the teeming mass of humanity packed like sardines into a small central location, it was all clearly a tribute to the grandiosity of Baron Haussmann's neoclassical vision of Paris; just as Paris pays tribute to Paleo-Classical Rome and Rome pays tribute to Athens. London pays exactly the same tribute, but in a different way. The sprawling austerity of modern London is in some ways more understated, perhaps after the manner of Frederick the Great's Berlin and copied by Chicago. But then the modern (post-modern?) Paris of the late 20th century made a stunning reversal and seemed to base its ideas on mid-century New York.
Contemporary New York is a very different place from the New York of the world's imagination. It is more metropolitan area than city, and as with so much of America, most people who work in it live in planned communities beyond its outskirts. The people who move to New York with dreams of living in a land of boundless opportunity and innovation are more than fifty years behind the times - by common consensus America's west coast has long since overtaken the East as the land of forward thinking, and neither holds much of a candle to many cities in Asia. But whereas New York is now a land of cars and commuters, Paris is still a land defined gargantuanly efficient public transit and continual pedestrian crossings, centrally located art museums and mid-century jazz - like a Golden Age New York preserved in Europe.

15. Le Jazz - As with so many aspects of modern French culture, the French jazz scene is like a refrigerator in which the best periods of American jazz seem to be preserved exactly as they were. Over and over again, I seem to be stumbling on jazz cubs in which the sixty-year-old set listens in worshipful reverence to the jazz combos that wouldn't be out of place in a Coltrane and Ornette Coleman set with nary a sense that the more progressive jazz of the 70's and beyond - late Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report - ever happened. You could do worse, there's a lot of later Jazz that sucks, but this is a conservative culture, freeze-blasted in the past, in no way a dynamic, evolving one. This is jazz as classical music, preserved around the early sixties, the one moment in American history when jazz and perhaps only jazz was considered the true American music. But speaking as someone completely sick of the classical world, it does not speak well for the future of jazz if it exists only as a classical canon where the gate must always be guarded. The fact that you're listening to quality music is guaranteed in such a situation, but it's also the worst possible safeguard against the kind of revelations which make great art worth seeking out.
 The early 60's was the golden era for jazz appreciation, but was it truly the greatest moment in jazz history? Moved as I'll always be by A Love Supreme, Sketches of Spain, and Ah-Um, I can't escape the feeling that jazz was already something much too "serious" by by the age of Miles Davis and all his various progeny. It was the 'romantic period' in Jazz History when artists had the freedom to create exactly what they wanted, and while the results are often fascinating, they aren't necessarily better than in periods when artists were more restricted. Just as few people would argue that Weber, Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner were better composers than Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, I find it hard to believe that Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were better musicians than Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie. In an era when artists get to do precisely what they want, they can take themselves as seriously as they want - and the inevitable byproduct is that humor is usually either thrown overboard, or totally segregated from seriousness. For me, great as Coltrane and Miles are, the real revelations in jazz come from that earlier era of Pops and Duke and Art Tatum and Earl Hines, when jazz was new and liberating, and not bogged down by all the weight of tradition. If you want revelations in the 60's, you have to find it in rock and R&B, where The Beatles and Ray Charles were able to capture life in all its facets. It is only in the sense that what's there has not yet been said that one can find the real revelations, the real new discoveries which every generation finds for themselves in their own (sweet) way.

16. France - Editors of America: A few days ago I saw a quote written in graffiti on a subway: "The mind is like a parachute, it doesn't work if it's not open." - Franck (spelled like Cesar Franck) Zappa. I thought that was amazing, showing in one small gesture the way the French seem to idolize everything great about America, even if they don't understand it. From the earliest age, America was critiqued by its earliest aly, France, a friend and sometimes frenemy of long standing which has the longest and most reliable tradition (in both senses) of critiquing America, showing America what is right about it, and also what's wrong. Occasionally France gets it wrong in both directions, but even so, France is our most devoted friend: championing the best in us and condemning the worst more than any country in our relatively short history than any other country.
But like all friends, countries often don't understand one another, often talking past each other in the ways we want to hear even if it's not at all what the other meant. France, like most countries, celebrate the greatness of America all the while reviling all those things they hate about it. Yet none of these countries seem to realize that one simply can't have one without the other. France, like most of Western Europe, is far too well-removed from history's pressure cooker to remember what it was like to live in it. The age when France was at the center of world history is two-hundred years in the past - and since the fall of Napoleon, there are other countries that have mattered far more to cultural history. For a hundred years, America has been the world's chief battleground on which those ideas are fought, and I'm sorry to say that the country may now be losing that battle (as all great civilizations eventually do) but if America does not manage to renew itself from its latest crisis, the battle will rage on somewhere else, perhaps somewhere in Asia, and America will be free to play France to their new friends - living a life of comparitive lesiure and with all the privileges of criticizing freely because the decisions won't have the same existential importance to us as they will to those who live in the thick of them.

 17. The Museum Will Close in Twenty Minutes - A Dialogue with the now deceased but still grumpy Robert Hughes:

RH: Well, what did you think of the Musee D'Orsay?

ET: A brillianty depressing place.

RH: What could possibly be depressing about such enlivening creativity?

ET: The sheer emptiness of it. The spiritul rottenness of these artists. The lack of consideration about anything smacking of a human emotion.

RH: Well surely you can't feel that way about all of it...

ET: Hardly. I love Courbet and Daumier, and the liveliness of their paintings stand out even more in relation to everything that came after.  And I especially love Van Gogh because he saw the emptiness of all those Cezanne and Monet paintings he tried to emulate and it drove him to suicide.

RH: Surely you can't be one of those phillistines who thinks still lifes and landscapes are boring.

ET: By and large I absolutely am. I can watch fruit any time I want.

RH: Well there is no hope for you then, but no matter. And your Van Gogh comment is not quite as out of left field as it seems, but I'm still beginning to think that you're just a vapid generalist who doesn't really want to understand anything.

ET: This coming from the art critic who tried to anchor 20/20?

RH: I thought American television could be more intelligent than it was.

ET: It is now, but there's no BBC, and you're no Clive James.

RH: And thank God for that, Clive's a gifted writer, but he's an imperialist toady.

ET: That doesn't make sense.

RH: A lot of my insults don't make sense.

ET: Neither did a lot of your enthusiasms.

RH: I contain multitudes.

ET: Well in the hair department, nobody's arguing.

RH: A great critic needs great hair as much as a great artist.

ET: I'm working on that.

RH: (stares at Evan's hair, makes Evan uncomfortable) Work quickly...

ET: So let's change the subject, I hate Auguste Renoir, he's like the French Norman Rockwell. 

RH: I prefer to think of him as the French Walt Disney. And besides, isn't his son your favorite movie director?

ET: He's certainly near the top. But his son has real insight into human beings rather than just weird fetishes for fat women and little girls.

RH: Well if that's how you feel abot Renoir, do you like Manet's women better?

ET: Oh god, Manet's worse - at least Renoir's fetishes were interesting.

RH: Do you like any impressionists?

ET: Do Degas or Toulouse-Latrec count?

RH: I suppose if you want to be charitable.

ET: My favorite is Rousseau.

RH: Oh god, that self-taught amateur?

ET: What's wrong with Rousseau?

RH: He can't fucking paint.

ET: And I can't fucking see.

RH: Then what the hell are you doing in an art museum?

ET: I'm a tourist in Paris with bad French, what else is there to do?

RH: I never thought I'd meet anyone grumpier than me...

18. The Veelas of Shakespeare and Co. - I'm not much of a fan of archetypes in literature, even in Harry Potter, but one of the best archetypes for me is the Veelas, the magical French beings so beautiful that the mere act of looking at them can enchant you. The veelas in the Harry Potter 4 movie could never do justice to what we could imagine in the books. But then again, right around the time I saw Harry Potter 4, I knew a beautiful French girl I nicknamed Fleur Delaceur - so beautiful it was almost irritating, smart, always the center of attention, so beautiful that the worst parts of life was pretty much guaranteed never to happen to her because the rest of us 'normies' would always go out of our way to help her just for the pleasure of being in her company, and she knew it.
It's almost needless to say, but there are so millions of women in France who could pass for Veelas - perfect women who appear to resemble nothing so much as a perfect mix of physique, intelligence, elegance, eccentricity, and sexuality. To imagine yourself with any one of them, particularly for a guy like me with the unfortunate habit of staring at the floor when in the company of beautiful women (or at her breasts), seems like a happiness too far - almost something you can't even dare yourself to do. And of all the beautifl women in France, the most beautiful women in all Paris seem to congregate at the English langugage bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. Weirder still, they all seem to be American.
 There is a very specific type of American woman who goes Francophile. They seem to do so with a specific aim - to compete with French girls at their own game, and beat them. In this age of the newly liberated women, perhaps the first generation to not remember when the glass ceiling was uncrackable, and these American girls: usually upper-middle class, well-educated, intelligent, fancy themselves among the creme-de-la-creme of their generation; and they're usually right. I must know at least fifty girls who fit this description to a T, and at one point or another I've probably been in love with all of them (don't flatter yourselves). 

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Posts I'd Have Written Part 3

10. Singer and Chagall

Isaac Bashevis Singer came from a Polish town called Radzymin, just a few towns over from Bransk, my father's family's town of origin. Marc Chagall grew up in Vitebsk, the Lithuanian city from where my mother's family hailed. The two great explainers of Yiddish culture to the Western Public - both obsessed with relgion, sin and sex - reading or looking at their work can be quite a shock for those of us whose memories of Yiddish culture are entirely through the eyes of our geriatric grandparents. Singer spent his career trying to return to the shtetl, Chagall spent his career trying to leave it. Singer ended up in New York, amidst a Yiddish culture of Greenhorns who tried (and failed) to live as though the past could be recreated. Chagall landed mostly in France, amidst a thriving culture of aesthetes, but for all his efforts to embrace French hedonism, he could never put his place of origin behind him. It is this tension which still makes their xorks explode off the page, and illustrate as greatly as any pair of creators have the problems of living in two worlds.

11. Modernism: Conservatism in Disguise 

Any self-respecting modernist will tell you precisely the same thing: the emptiness of modernism is a reflection of the emptiness all around us - the vacuity of consumerism, the vacuity of politics, the vacuity of war, the vacuity of our collective consciousneszzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... And yet for all its condemnations of modern life, it has a tremendous fear of being seen as anything but modern. Going through the Pompidou Centre in 2012, what is still modern about all this art, this videography, this music? The world has evolved well past needing modernism, and modernism is now a word that seems stuck in the "return to the 19th century" mentality which is far beyond anyone's ability to do, even if we ever wanted to do it. Artistic modernism does not seek to embrace the future, it seeks to eliminate it.

12. The Francofication of Mad Men

I apparently can't stop thinking about this show, even in France. The appearance of the French-Canadian Megan Calvet, once seeming so utterly out of left field, suddenly makes perfect sense. The America of the early 60s embraced French culture - the films of Truffaut and Godard, the songs of Piaff and Brel, the philosophy of Sartre and Camus, not to mention attitudes to food, fashion and sex .... - that the entire late 60s can be said to be inspired by what Americans saw coming from France. When Americans of the sixties wanted greater cultural freedom; the freedom to follow one's desires in work, in love, in sex, in politics, what they were really longing for is the freedoms which so many of the people who constitute French culture took for granted. Megan's family is a fully realized alternative culture to the family of the American Dream - one that far more resembles today's American families than any other family shown on Mad Men. Just as Layne Pryce represents the old world of England - the world America left behind in their founding, Megan Calvet represents the world of America's future. As Mad Men draws into its final two seasons, Megan may get still more interesting.

13. Getting Robbed: A Semi-Fiction

No further explanation necessary for the time being...

Friday, August 3, 2012

800 Words: The Posts I'd Have Written Part 2

6. The World's Most Christian Country - The center of Catholic History is France, not Italy. Italian history must contend with classical history as well as Christian history - just as Turkey must contend with Ottoman history as well as Byzantine (in reverse order). The most Christian countries are Russia and France, and no country was more exclusively formed by Catholicism than France - its entire nationhood, its entire history, is bound to the Church - either in practice or in reaction. The Catholic Church began as a heresy in Italy, but it arrived in France with all the power of a conquerer, and the greatest, most well-known monuments are to be found on French, not Italian soil.

7. France: Land of the Past - France is perhaps the only country in Europe in which an American would feel more strongly out of place than he did at the end of World War II.  French culture swam far unimaginably far against the globalizing current to preserve itself exactly as it was. The French are the only Europeans who speak English with an accent as strong as they did fifty years ago, and all their cultural traditions seem to run parallel to the American current. The reasons for this are, strangely, as conservative a sentiment as they are liberal, and the end result is that by isolating themselves, France allows a glorious past to subsume the present. There are very few cultural/scientific breakthroughs in the last forty years of which the world has taken notice - in my lifetime, France has always remained unalterably France - with no sense that it changes from decade to decade, meanwhile, the evolution time insists upon boils just beneath the surface.

8. What does France do Best? - England has drama, America has movies, Russia has novels, Italians have art, Germany has music, Spain has dancing, perhaps Japan has animation...what artform does France do incontrovertibly best? The answer is that the greatest artform of France is...France itself. To an extent far past any other country, France has mastered the plastic arts that create the food on our plate, the clothes we wear, the scape of our cities. Other countries have particular genres of art which theyve mastered to make life more bearable, France, to a greater extent than any other country, has mastered life itself.

9. L'obsession anti-americaine - There are many, many things worth criticizing about America. But it's very different to hear it from people who are not Americans themselves. There is always a gaggle of ironies about when Europeans accuse Americans of running down the achievements of other cultures while boosting the virtues of their own. The very concept of the European Union and the social welfare state would not exist with neither the United States's example, nor its repeated generosity. People with a view from the cheap seats are always bitter, and those without power can afford to criticize those who do without fear of reprisal, because their opinions dont matter.

800 Words: The Posts I'd Have Written Part 1

I don't doubt a severe chance of a lost/stolen/broken computer would be risked had I brought a computer to France. Even so, I feel almost mute without it - totally without that imaginary internet reader/friend who understands me utterly and thinks I'm perfect in every way... so, for that friend, who probably would be on facebook, here are just five (there are a number of others) of the posts I've been gathering notes for and would probably have written most of had I regular access to a good computer.

1. The American Gentleman - 150 years ago, there were a group of Russian intelligensia - overprivileged men of means who straddled that fine line between intellectual voraciousness and pseudo-intellectual - with names like Turgenev, Herzen, Bakunin, Belinsky, and some names that are much more famous today... Like all people privileged enough to travel, they eventually made their way to Western Europe, where they were astonished at the quality of life they saw in comparison to their home country. The crushing realization dawned on them that life as it was in Russia did not have to be as difficult as their governments made it, and they and their countrymen were missing out on easy privileges which Western Europeans take for granted. Like the Western Europe of that period, today's Western Europe is hardly a model which other countries should emulate in every detail. But the alternative to learning their lessons is to unlearn them, and just as the 19th Century Russians had pan-Slavism and Christian fundamentalism saying to reject the lessons of Western Europe, today's America has Tax Leninists (Grover Norquist's own words) and Christian fundamentalism telling us to reject Western Europe's easy mores. Where that leads is anybody's guess...

2. Englishman or Frenchman - At heart, everybody is either an Englishman or a Frenchman - a classicist or a romantic' a realist or an idealist, a rational being or an emotional one, superego driven or driven by the id. The French and the English constitute the oldest continual civilizations on Earth. Through decline and rebirth, at no point in over half-a-millenium has either country been utterly decimated in the way so many other neighboring countries could not avoid (though WWI came close). The result is an organic, unimpeded kind of growth you can't find in any other European country in which each era makes sense as a reaction to the previous era and makes sense in relation to what was going on in either country. No two countries are more different: the French seem to value sense; they see the world as something to experience and hardly a single French person can be described as anything but beautiful: the English seem to value sensibility; they see the world as something ascetic to understand and look like mole people.

3. The Decline of Breast Implants - I can't help myself...really I can't....Nice has amazing topless beaches, but more amazing anthropologically than aesthetically. The barrage of bare breasts is somewhat beguiling at first glance, then you look up to see that 18 out of 20 most impressive bare mammaries in any given field of vision seem to be the property of women in their late sixties whose plastic surgery collapsed everywhere else. These are women from the sexual revolution's first generation - whose idea of glamor still came from old school Hollywood and European art-films. They're young enough to believe in sex as something to be approached casually, but too old to be of an impressionable age when feminism taught women to believe that they did not have to devote their lives to impressing men. The result is that there may not have been a generation of women in living memory whose lives were so difficult.

4. Who Are Our Impressionists? - Impressionist painters were barely known in their own time. The greatest painters of late 19th century France were at the time considered to be painters of whom we've never heard - whose sole recommending quality was that their painting was as pretty as they were vapid. In so many ways, this resembles many artistic genres in our own day, particularly in music. We like the beat of a three-chord song, or the lyrics are easily understood, and we don't give much more thought to the music than that. It's entirely possible that in 100 years, all the music we listen to; even Bjork or Steve Reich or Pierre Boulez or Kanye West, will interest precisely no one. Who are the Monets, the Van Goghs, the Cezannes, the Gauguins, of our day. As the hipsters would say, you've probably never heard of them - neither have I.

5. The New Gothic Era? - Looking at the iconography of a Medieval Age tells us we're beginning to have far more in common with the Middle Ages than with the Renaissance. Like the Middle Ages, we seem to prefer stories told in pictures which need no education to be understood, we increasingly prefer our art to deal with the depiction of fantastic realms than we like those works which deal with reality (perhaps because we now view reality as something trivial), we increasingly divide spiritual matters from sensual ones, and the disparities in people's education grow far wider. There was a brief period in modern life (isn't it always brief?) when it seemed alright to believe in both religion and secularism. These periods happen for brief times in different places - usually when civilzations reach their apex - the America of FDR, the Greece of Alexander, the England of Elizabeth I, the Austria of Metternich, in which a civilization - for whatever reason - feels fundamentally as though their is no division between temporal matters and eternal ones, and for these brief periods, humanity makes progress and comes to understand itself a little better - the harvest from which human beings benefit from afterward until the present day.  In our own time, religion did not produce the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, and in so many cases it was on the side of civil rights and protection against political repression. But this period seems to be drawing to a close. Religion has come increasingly close to self-denial. Rather than the creation and liberation which eroticism brings, it is returning yet again to renunciation, penitence, violence. Meanwhile, secularists, inceasingly having lost any connection with "spiritual" matters, have embraced a kind of nihlistic revision of liberalism that does not allow for any respite but a temporary one. The result is a far greater preoccupation with the more permissive elements of liberalism - particularly in matters of sex, rather than the stuff which matters far more - freedom of speech and due process, education, health care, employment (it's highly possible that a more educated public taught to care about rights would see things like freedom of choice for abortion and allowing gay marriage as a given). By focusing so much on bedroom matters at the expense of other things, secularism has in fact given itself the same obsessions as religion - and is just as much a slave to them. In the happiest periods of human history, perhaps people found a means to feel pleasure through fulfillment and fulfillment through pleasure.  And we humans would feel a little more at peace with both our own persons and the eternal, infinite time and space around us.