Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Ghost-Story

Here is a poem, written by Thomas Hardy 114 years ago, which asks a perennial but hopelessly rhetorical question. (It was the Boer War in which the English soldier died.)


A Christmas Ghost Story

South of the Line, inland from Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies - your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be right, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domino' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause fpr which He died."

Christmas Eve, 1899


Just to avoid confusion, I suppose, the term "A.D." ("Anno Domino," or"Year of Our Lord") and B.C. ("Before Christ") were dropped by many historians and archaeologists in favor of the inoffensive (to non-Christians) terms C.E. ("Christian Era") and B.C.E.

Anatomy of a Christmas Carol





Christmas Carols, songs or hymns sung during the Christmas season, have a history going back to 4th century Rome. The Protestant Reformation actually accelerated the popularity of carols, since Martin Luther encouraged music in churches and composed carols himself. The tradition in England can be traced back as far as the 17th century. One of the finest and most beautiful Christmas carol sequences was composed by Benjamin Britten in 1942. 


John Rutter (b. 1945), who has become a favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (he composed some of their wedding music) has specialized in choral music and has assembled the choral group The Cambridge Singers to perform his own as well as other favorite choral pieces in the English canon. As arranger and editor, he compiled the four volume Carols for Choirs with David Willcocks. Among them are the exquisite carols, "Candlelight Carol," "Christmas Lullaby," and "Christmas Night." 

"Candlelight Carol" became especially wondrous for me when I became trapped in a Philippine province without power after Super Typhoon Haiyan last November. I tried to make the approach of Christmas as cheery as possible by listening, throughout the sometimes unnerving silence at night, to my MP3 recordings of Rutter's carols (after charging my batteries every day using a neighbor's generator) long into the starry nights. My companion and I had candles that illumined our sala (living room), and Rutter's carol was beautifully coincidental.

But even more exquisite is what is probably Rutter's finest carol, "What Sweeter Music." (You can listen to it on YouTube here.) The original carol was composed by M. Henry Lawes (who also set Milton's Comus to music) to words written by the extraordinary poet Robert Herrick. At the start Herrick asks, 

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly king?

Herrick seems to remind us that "sweet" was one of Shakespeare's favorite words, and he uses the occasion of the birth of Jesus, a humble event in a Bethlehem barn, to present to us startlingly fresh imagery and a vision of a baby as a bringer of joy and of love to a winterbound world.

Dark and dull night, fly hence away
And give the honour to this day
That sees December turn's to May.

Why does this chilly winter's morn
Smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus, on a sudden?

Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
'Tis He is born, whose quick'ning birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,
To heaven and under-earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.


How could the announcement of Jesu's birth be more simply and lovingly put than Herrick's line "The darling of the world is come"? No one, to my knowledge, ever called the Son of God "darling." 

Herrick reminds us of the origin of the Christmas festival, borrowed from the pagan Roman Saturnalia - a mid-winter period of feasting, a sudden and, sadly, a brief reappearance of spring in the midst of darkness and cold. It's no accident, then, that Christmas became especially precious to Northern Europeans, for whom winters are longer and bleaker.

Of Herrick, George Saintsbury wrote: 

"The last - the absolutely last if we take his death-date - of those poets who have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another, was Robert Herrick."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The View from the Hill

My two favorite writers are George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell was born in 1903 and Camus a decade later, in fact a hundred tears ago today.(1) There are a few interesting similarities between them. Both were born in colonies, outposts of empire: Orwell in British India and Camus in French Algeria. Both were teachers for s short time, long enough to learn that they hated the job. Both were Leftists who tried to avoid its orthodoxies. Both contracted tuberculosis - Camus was cured, but the disease killed Orwell. Both created striking parables on totalitarianism, The Plague in 1947 and Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. And both of them died at the age of 46.

Because I encountered him when I was a very young man, Camus has been with me the longest time, and I think I cherish him more because of this. Through the years, the truth in his writings has been continually confimed: "Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut." (The world is beautiful, and there is no salvation beyond it.) Despite having lived - so far - nine years longer than he, these words seem to me more true than ever.

His seminal, and central essay was The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942 concurrent with his first brilliantly serious and sensuous novel, The Stranger (2). Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been a mentor for Camus, was critical of the essay because of its lack of philosophical rigor. Sartre may have been a better philosopher, but Camus was by far the better artist. Sisyphus is a fascinating treatise because of its highly imaginative, personal and emotional content.

It was this work, with its metaphor of a contented - even a happy - Sisyphus fulfilling his Sisyphean task of pushing a giant rock to the top of a hill, only to watch as it rolls all the way back down to the bottom, that introduced to literature Camus's concept of the Absurd, insisting that all human endeavors are ultimately as fruitless and profitless. "The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."

Faced with knowledge of the futility of his life, Man must inevitably contemplate suicide. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Camus himself had attempted suicide. "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face." How can he possibly be happy, knowing what he knows of the futility and hopelessness of his life? What would stop someone from suicide if he possessed such knowledge? Even thus punished for eternity by the Gods, Sisyphus's triumph lies in his rebellion - his refusal to be damned by his labors. "But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself." Camus concludes in his essay that, even if this tedious effort is his only reality, the condition of being a man, he must accept it, embrace it, ceaselessly throw himself into the effort. "What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The image that Camus leaves us with is indelible: Sisyphus on the hilltop, turning to descend down the hill to where the rock - his rock - has rolled once again. Is it a faint smile I see on his shadowy face? "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back."

For me, this is Camus's greatest achievement - making words and abstract concepts into flesh. "In the beginning was the Word," the gospel of John begins. "And the word was made flesh." And it's what distinguishes Camus the artist from Camus the philosopher. It is only because they convince one as works of art that his most philosophical essays live on.


(1) My father was born the same year, on March 13. 3-13-13. Needlessly to say, my father was a gambler all his life.
(2) The word "stranger" is a better equivalent to the French l'Étranger than "outsider," which is also gauche.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A World in Print

On further reflection (always a mistake), I find that the words I published two days ago - twenty-two days too late - on the occasion of my learning of the death of Stanley Kauffmann were helplessly inadequate. I was reading a post on John Simon's blog that he published last month, referring to Kauffmann in the past tense. Since I was already sensitive to the man's advanced age (97), I checked and discovered the news of his passing. I seem to have dropped everything since.

I can't properly gauge how much this man meant - and still means - to me, since it had a cumulative effect over most of my life. His writings on film (and it's important to remember that he wrote about much more than just films) are as heartening and restorative to read as it is to watch the films he so brilliantly celebrated, like L'Avventura, about which he wrote in 1960. 

He showed anyone who cared to read his column that, despite all the worthless prattle that about 99 % of film commentary amounts to, some films demand serious consideration. But even when he wrote about utterly forgettable films, like How to Live Forever (2009), he found something beautiful to say (italics mine):


There isn’t much new to be said about death, but that won’t stop us, all of us, from saying it. Hence this documentary—and this review of it.

How to Live Forever was made by the experienced Mark Wexler, who, an affable host, appears in it as interviewer. He visits people all over this country and in a few others who are interested, in their smiling ways, in death. They very rarely mention it: what they talk about mostly is prolonging life or rejuvenation, neither of which would be subjects at all if it were not for death.

The film begins with a visit to a trade show of funeral equipment in a huge exhibition hall through which we are guided by a sexy blonde in a clinging dress who makes winsome faces at us in front of coffins. But Wexler’s tone throughout is not satirical: he is sympathetic as he interviews a guru of calorie-counting-as-life-preserver, one of laughing yoga, one of physical fitness (Jack LaLanne, who did all that fitness could do). He gives us a glimpse of elderly porn performers in Japan. He takes us to visit a 101-year-old man who smokes and drinks, then a 114-year-old woman who did not smoke or drink—on camera at least. We hear the venerable comedian Phyllis Diller, who talks about meeting a man so old that his blood type has been discontinued. There is much, much more.

Through it all we feel a slight bewilderment—that there are so many people who treat death as if it were a problem to be solved. None of the teachers or masters in the film promises immortality, but each of them is proposing—is selling-a means of treating inevitability as questionable. The only memorable comment comes, unsurprisingly, from Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who is also a notable author (and a contributor to these pages). He says he feels that his death is a debt to the past and to the future. We can take this to mean that the past gave him a place in a tremendous procession, that he had a chance to make a contribution, and that now he must make room for those to come. This seems a bit stoic, but it has a ring to it.


Stanley Kauffmann's contribution to the tremendous procession is incalculable.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stanley Kauffmann (1916-2013)

Stanley Kauffmann, who was The New Republic's film critic for fifty-five years (the length of my own life, so far), died on October 9, at the age of 97. I wish I could say that it has taken me this long to come up with the words to measure the depth of my sense of loss. But the awful fact is, it's taken me this long to find out. I don't have access to the internet 24-7. It's more like an hour or two a week. Here is what The New Republic published on the day of his death. At the bottom of the selection of tributes are links to other articles by and about him. His New York Times obit is here.

I expressed some of my admiration for the man on the occasion of his 97th birthday. I hope I didn't do it too clumsily. The simple fact is that I wanted to say something while he was still around, still in the same world I live in, still watching and commenting on films. Film has gone through too many dispiriting slumps in the last fifty years, shifts in taste and in the utterly fickle attention span of what Kauffmann himself called the Film Generation. Kauffmann took every slump in stride, and insisted that claims for the death of cinema were always premature. Yet he admitted to being amazed, every year, when a beautiful and intelligent film from some of the unlikeliest places in the world showed up on his doorstep in New York. And he sympathized with some of his readers who lived in places where those films would only ever reach them via netflix.

For a long time, I was one of those readers, living in the boondocks. The word "bundok" is a Tagalog (Filipino) word that refers to a remote, inaccessible place. And now I'm living in an actual bundok, in the Philippines, so removed from the world, in fact, that the news of my favorite film critic's death took three weeks to reach me.

He was in the same class of American film critics as Otis Ferguson (who also wrote for The New Republic), James Agee, and Dwight Macdonald. His long life kept alive the somewhat romantic hope that there would be a few more by now to add to that list. America has certainly been luckier with its film critics than with its films. That hope isn't exactly dashed, but it seems so much more romantic than it used to.

So long, Mr. Kauffmann.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Domestic Cruelty

A "symbiosis" is defined in the OED as

noun (plural symbioses /-ˌsēz/)
Biology
interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.

An example of such a phenomenon is a plant that has brilliantly colored flowers and nectar that attracts hummingbirds who, while feasting on the nectar with their long, thin beaks, pollenate the plant. The plant and the hummingbird depend on each other for survival.

Humans have no such symbiotic relationship with animals or plants. We exploit nature for our own benefit. Livestock animals depend for their survival on us, but not vice-versa. Over the millennia, animals have been enlisted to provide us with fodder and hides, and also to bear our burdens.

Our relationship with dogs - easily the most privileged animals among us - has gone through numerous permutations. Originally, it is likely that wild dogs were captured and kept in human settlements, fed leftovers (giving the dog a bone), used to pull sleds across the ice and snow, and to guard against intruders. This dependence on humans brought about - in an animal more intelligent than any other domesticated animal (even if pigs are reportedly smarter) - a much closer relationship, a devotion or loyalty to an individual's family, or to a group. But the limitations of the relationship have always been clearly defined, since, for one thing, the lifespan of dogs is not even as long as one human generation.

People have shown a profound love for dogs from the beginning, but lately, and perhaps only in the most technically developed societies, dog loving has reached unprecedented proportions. As an adjunct, I suppose, to veterinary medicine, people calling themselves "dog psychologists" are popping up everywhere, and it has become a big business since the success of the "reality" TV program "The Dog Whisperer," and its star, Cesar Milan. Milan's show demonstrates - powerfully - how little dog owners understand how dog's think. It also shows the incredible amount of room that some people are prepared to set aside in their lives for their dogs.

This remarkable accommodation of dogs in people's lives is relatively new, and I think it can be traced to the fall in birthrates in the most developed countries. Single men and women and older couples whose children have grown up and left home adopt dogs for obvious reasons. Some even admit that they prefer their dogs to husbands, live-in partners, or children.(1) It's clear that an exaggerated love for animals goes hand in hand with a certain amount of misanthropy.

Probably nothing else illuminates the true dimensions of the accommodation of dogs in people's lives than a pet cemetery. There is a scene in the unforgettable 1962 Italian "documentary" Mondo Cane (Bestial World) in which images of old ladies visiting a pet cemetery in the U.S., with old women tearfully placing flowers on the graves of their departed poodles, were juxtaposed with shots from a Singapore restaurant yelping puppies crammed into cages were on the menu, like live lobsters in aquariums at the supermarket.

The helpless, instinctive devotion of dogs to people is exploited to some extreme instances. The superiority of a dog's senses of smell and hearing is routinely employed by police and rescue personnel. When dogs are used in law enforcement or combat situations, in so-called K-9 units, the situations are potentially lethal. When these units award medals to their dogs for "valor" or "courage under fire", whether or not they're still alive, their handlers are being downright obtuse. Such ceremonies make it hard to determine who is more oblivious that the use of dogs in K-9 units is exploitation, pure and simple - the dogs themselves or their handlers. It's no different, really, from the use of dogs in scientific experiments. When the first American astronauts were asked by an obtuse reporter how they differed from the chimpanzee that NASA had shot into space, they had to point out that the chimps had no idea they were sitting on top of a rocket about to be shot into space. Before the chimp could comprehend his hazardous situation, he would have to understand how a rocket ship works and what outer space is. Similarly, dogs in K-9 units are doing nothing more than following the commands of their handlers, with no comprehension of explosives or ballistics.

When American movie productions use animals, there is usually a disclaimer from the American Humane Association stating that no animals were harmed during the making of the film. They make no mention of the occasional harm to people during the filming, like injuries to stunt-people, simply because the people are involved in the production voluntarily and the animals are not. Recently, the hit HBO series Luck was cancelled because three horses (the film is centered on a race track) were killed during the shooting.

But the exploitation of dogs goes much further than most people realize. In 2011, a documentary called Project Nim was released that was an account of a Columbia University experiment in the 1970s in which a baby chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky, who has claimed that humans are the only animals that use language), was raised among humans just like a human child. Problems started to arise as the chimp grew in size and strength. In the middle of the experiment, funding dried up and Nim's handlers were told they would have to give hand him over to an animal shelter. When one of the handlers, a young woman, started to leave the protective compound in which the experiment was being conducted, Nim turned violent and savagely beat the handler's head against the pavement. With no serious injuries, the woman later observed, "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you."

In his review of the documentary, Michael Wood, film critic for the London Review of Books, wondered:

"We can refuse to recognize the otherness of other animals by pretending they are like us, versions of us; and we can, it seems, understand their otherness only by a more refined use of the same method. But what constitutes the refinement? ... But then what I really want to know is not what a chimpanzee would feel if he was human but what I would feel if I was a chimpanzee."

But what dog owners practice all over the world is a kind of rehearsal of the experiment in Project Nim - they invite animals into their homes and treat them like family members, without for a moment comprehending what it must mean to the animal. When the chimp Nim was finally settled into a wildlife ranch where several other chimps were kept, it took him awhile to grasp the fact that he was a chimpanzee himself and that he belonged with other chimps and not with people. When one of Nim's handlers visited him years after his "resettlement" among chimps, she made the mistake of entering his enclosure. Nim, who apparently recognized her, went berserk and threw the woman around his cage like a rag doll. The woman was rescued and survived the attack.

Animal shelters reveal a great deal about what people really think and feel about dogs and what the actual status of dogs is in human society. According to American Humane Association calculations, "56 percent of dogs ... that enter animal shelters are euthanized." Actual numbers aren't available, but it's estimated that "approximately 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation’s shelters in 2008. This number represents a generally accepted statistic that is widely used by many animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)." Only about one-quarter of dogs that enter shelters end up adopted. This is a direct result of dog-owners' refusal to get their pets spayed or neutered.

Animal shelters use the word "adoption" when people remove a dog, for a small fee. there is never any real confusion about the nature of a dog owner's ownership of the animal. The dogs are property, pure and simple. They wear collars identifying the names of their owners. They don't "run away" from their owners so much as they escape their captivity. To facilitate their recovery, many dog owners are having microchips implanted in their animals.

More and more in prosperous countries, people are bestowing on dogs a status far above all other animals, while never quite redeeming them from their condition as animals. In his inimitable way, Rilke caught the heartbreaking poignancy of our relationship with dogs, and the full extent of the crime we unwittingly, and repeatedly, commit on them: "We help them up into a soul," he wrote, "for which there is no heaven."


(1) When I left home for the Navy, and after my father died, my mother, who always called me "Danny Boy," adopted a West Highland Terrier that she named "Donny Boy." She could've been more subtle, but I suppose that might've ruined the symbolism.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shadow Union

Last Friday, when Saudi Arabia was offered a 2-year membership by the United Nations Security Council (an inner circle of the most powerful and influential nations in the world), it took the unprecedented step of refusing the honor, citing the UN's failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the war in Syria.

In 1946, a year after the United Nations had been established, George Orwell was one of the few observers to point out what was to him the obvious:

"In order to have any efficacy whatever, a world organization must be able to override big states as well as small ones. It must have power to inspect and limit armaments, which means that its officials must have access to every square inch of every country. It must also have at its disposal an armed force bigger than any other armed force and responsible only to the organization itself. The two or three great states that really matter have never even pretended to agree to any of these conditions, and they have so arranged the constitution of U.N.O. that their own actions cannot even be discussed. In other words, U.N.O.'s usefulness as an instrument of world peace is nil. This was just as obvious before it began functioning as it is now. Yet only a few months ago millions of well-informed people believed that it was going to be a success."(1)

Orwell knew the importance of the UN, but doubted that it would be allowed to perform its mission, which was to defuse further wars. In 68 years, one has only to look around the world to see that the UN has failed to fulfill its mission. The list of its more spectacular blunders is a long one: Sri Lanka, the "veto power" used by obstructionist regimes in China and Russia to stop much-needed interventions, the Srebrenica Massacre, Cambodia's Killing Fields, Darfur, and Rwanda. The latest disgrace was "inadvertently" committed by UN soldiers from Nepal sent to Haiti to assist in the nation's reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake. The soldiers dumped human waste into a river that was used by Haitians for bathing, washing clothes, and water to drink. A cholera epidemic erupted that has so far killed more than 8,000 people and sickened nearly 400,000. The UN, while acknowledging responsibility for the deadly mistake, now insists their charter makes them immune from criminal liability.

It is a terrible legacy, and yet when Saudi Arabia announced its rejection of the Security Council seat, all the experts could say was that Saudi Arabia's king is old and out of it, that it is a rich but decaying kingdom. I interpreted it as the first admission of the truth of the UN's uselessness. Its timing may have been suspect (the UN had just finished criticizing Saudi Arabia's human rights record), but its truth is undeniable.

But why must every effort to limit war or to make war untenable end in failure? Despite all of its shortcomings, its many embarrassing compromises and miserable failures, the UN as an ideal - even an impossible ideal - remains a perfectly sensible one. It seems to me the inevitable solution in a sane world to the threat of military aggression. War would be unthinkable if every nation, even the smaller, "emerging" nations, contributed money and manpower to an international organization whose sovereign power could override that of any single nation, big or small. Nations would be bound, not by just treaty but by common sense, not to interfere with the territory, trade, or treasury of its neighbors simply because to do so would impel every other nation, in the form of one united body, to come to its defense. It would require, however, a partial surrender of national sovereignty, which the most powerful nations of the world have refused to do.

Clearly, the UN has only so much power as its member states choose to allow it. Many Americans - the ones who call themselves "patriots," even though they're actually nationalists - oppose the UN on principle, believing that the United States must never relinquish any of its sovereignty because to do so would bring about the destruction of the American way of life. Their argument has always seemed out of date. The parallel wars fought by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rebellions in Libya and Syria, in which many Americans have felt obliged to intervene, have seriously weakened Americans' appetite for being the "policemen of the world." Someone else will have to be called on to fulfill that role as long as the UN remains powerless to resolve world conflicts.


(1) "In Front of Your Nose," Tribune, 22 March 1946.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Apologies

Last weekend I was reading a few of John Cheever's priceless short stories, which immortalize a lost world of men in hats, riding trains back and forth from homes in suburbs to jobs in the city, when I came across a timely piece of social criticism rare in Cheever. In the story, "The Golden Age," published in The New Yorker in 1959, an American named Seton has come to a small coastal town north of Rome for a break with his wife and two young sons. The Italian villagers think he's a poet, but he's trying to conceal the fact that he is a television writer, author of a situation comedy called "The Best Family."

Seton takes his family down to the beach, where he becomes troubled by his secret:

"He is a television writer. Lying on the sand of the cove, below the castle, is the form of a television writer. His crime is that he is the author of an odious situation comedy called 'The Best Family.' When it was revealed to him that in dealing with mediocrity he was dealing not with flesh and blood but with whole principalities and kingdoms of wrong doing, he threw up his job and fled to Italy. But now 'The Best Family' has been leased by Italian television - it is called 'La Famiglia Tosta' over here - and the asininities he has written will ascend to the towers of Siena, will be heard in the ancient streets of Florence, and will drift out of the lobby of the Gritti Palace onto the Grand Canal. This Sunday is his début, and his sons, who are proud of him, have spread the word in the village. Poeta!"

His two sons bring along the toy machine guns that their grandmother mailed them:

"His sons have begun to skirmish with their machine guns. It is a harrowing reminder of his past. The taint of television is on their innocent shoulders. While the children of the village sing, dance, and gather wild flowers, his own sons advance from rock to rock, pretending to kill. It is a mistake, and a trivial one, but it flusters him, although he cannot bring himself to call them to him and try to explain that their adroitness at imitating the cries and the postures of the dying may deepen an international misunderstanding. They are misunderstood, and he can see the women wagging their heads at the thought of a country so barbarous that even little children are given guns as playthings. Mamma mia! One has seen it all in the movies. One would not dare walk on the streets of New York because of the gang warfare, and once you step out of New York you are in a wilderness, full of naked savages."

Cheever wrote this story more than fifty years ago. The stereotypical image of life in America that Italians, and people all over the world, have developed has changed, thanks to our ever more violent movies and computer games, only in the degree of its savagery. And Americans who travel are confronted with foreigners who curiously ask them "why?".

The blunders of our government, as reported in up-to-the-minute detail by an evidently underworked media, leave foreigners perplexed. How can the lawmakers of the world's largest economy act so stupidly? China has even suggested that the world economy be "de-Americanized" - that the dollar be replaced as the world's currency.

American tourists aren't as easily lampooned as they were when E.M. Forster wrote A Room With a View. In the novel, Mr. Eager brutally sums up the experience of American tourists. A little American girl asks: "Hey, Poppa! What did we see in Rome?" "In Rome?" the father replies. "In Rome, we saw a yellow dog!" Since then, Italians have seen enough of British and Japanese and Chinese tourists to realize that Americans haven't monopolized vulgarity.

Having to answer for the "asininities" (as Cheever called them) of fellow Americans has become an unfortunate pastime for Americans abroad. Today, whenever the United States makes it into the news in foreign countries, it is usually because of some political crisis or a mass shooting. I remember standing inside a fast food joint in Okinawa when gangs of American sailors fought outside. A squealing girl came in pleading for towels from the Japanese proprietor to stop her boyfriend's bleeding. I stupidly felt the need to say to the man, "I'm sorry." (gomen nasai). "Stupidly," because I no longer feel responsible for the ridiculous behavior of my countrymen. Not even for the people in Congress who nearly took the country's economy over a cliff.

Incidentally, Cheever's story ends with an unexpected triumph. After the premiere of "La Famiglia Tosta" Seton is greeted with cheers from the villagers. He wanted to disown his television writing, but they were entranced by its "asininities." A little girl gives him flowers and the Mayor embraces him, saying "Oh, we thought, signore, that you were merely a poet."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Price of Secularism

Last month, two events happened to occur a week apart that could not be further apart in cultural sensibility. The first was the Miss Muslimah World beauty contest, held in Jakarta, Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country. The other was the MTV Video Music Awards. Both shows, televised to viewers around the world, demonstrated, quite intentionally, the contrasting ideals of feminine comportment in a conservative religious culture and a secular culture. The Miss Muslimah contest was held in Jakarta in protest of the Miss World contest that was held a few weeks later in Bali.

As the predominantly Muslim Asian nations of Malaysia and Indonesia became popular with tourists in the 1990s, tourist resorts began to proliferate, and developers were faced with a unique dilemma. The many thousands of tropical islands in the region were rimmed with pristine beaches that were in high demand by tourists from Asia, Europe, and North America. This resulted in native Muslims who worked for the resorts as well as others either operating as food or souvenir vendors having to look at foreign tourists, particularly foreign women, cavorting or lying on the sand almost naked.(1) Some beaches popular with Europeans saw topless and even fully nude bathers. For the conservative communities adjacent to these resorts, the behavior of the tourists, commonplace in their home countries, caused a rather serious clash of cultures. Even in less conservative Muslim countries, the amount of flesh that non-Muslims felt free to expose at the beach was alarming.

Many popular singers from the West, on tour in Asia, have found that they have to tone down the degree of suggestive dance moves and the cut of their costumes to appease Muslim audiences in Malaysia and Indonesia. Lady Gaga, who refused to compromise to promoters' demands, cancelled her concerts in those countries. Other performers, like Jennifer Lopez, made the necessary concessions for the sake of her fans - not to mention the revenue.

Meanwhile, viewers of MTV's Video Music Awards were subjected (the best word for it) to a performance by Miley Cyrus in which the 20 year old pop star, trying to break out of her teen image, tore off her teddy bear costume and proceeded to "twerk" for a mostly bewildered audience. The online Urban Dictionary defines "twerking" as follows: "The rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones intended audience." Cyrus's performance was far too bizarre to elicit sexual arousal, so I suppose she was doing it for laughs?

Not to be outdone, the Miss Muslimah contest showed the world, to their apparent amusement, how Muslim women should comport themselves in such a setting. The only parts of the participants that were uncovered were their faces, framed by the traditional "hijab", and hands. The presenters of the contest, in which Miss Nigeria won, were straining to make the point that a woman's beauty can be judged without her having to bare her body in costumes or in bikinis that leave so little to the imagination (mine, anyway) that it's soon obvious that the bikinis are mere pretexts.

As an imitation of Western beauty pageants, the Miss Muslimah contest was as far as its conservative presenters could go. So why was it dismissed and ridiculed in the Western press? Westerners living in secular societies, particularly those in Western Europe, are routinely exposed to TV programs that contain nudity (I won't mention, for now, the far more disturbing depictions of violence). It's practically a requirement that cable TV shows produced by HBO or Showtime should be replete with scenes of plenty of sex. It's almost their only excuse for existence.

We seem to be cocksure about the subjection of women in conservative Muslim states, that they are regarded as chattel, unlike the free and equal human beings that populate the West. But what on earth have freedom and equality to do with a near-naked Lady Gaga at the VMAs? As smart as she seems to be (her music is better than it sounds), does she really think that she is being ironic by wearing next to nothing while performing her painfully belated Punk songs?

Why does no one bother to question the fact that, aside from knowing what a wonderful actress she is, we must also know that Kate Winslet has (or, rather, had) a Rubenesque physique? Or that, quite secondary (I'd like to think) to her acting talents, Jessica Chastain has unexpectedly shapely breasts? Are such revelations to be accepted as perks? Why doesn't someone at least question why it is apparently only women who are obliged to undress for our delectation?

This, we are forced to conclude, is the price of secularism. Isn't it a little tawdry that even the biggest of our movie stars - the women, of course - should be obliged to take off their clothes at some point in their careers? Or that pop stars as successful as Beyoncé and Rihanna should have to dress and dance provocatively, in often grotesquely suggestive dance numbers? (2)

Last August, Vogue published glamorous phots of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO. Some complained that the photos were in questionable taste, since they reduced a very successful and powerful woman to the status of a pinup model. But what the tame and innocuous enough photos said most explicitly was that Mayer, extravagantly wealthy and powerful though she is, was also a woman with whom someone might wish to have sex. While our society now encourages women to "be all they can be," to "realize their full potential" as human beings, it also seems to require that they be sexually attractive and available.

After nearly everyone had their say about Miley Cyrus's appalling performance, one of the only comments that came close to making sense to me was from Gloria Steinem. "I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists."(3)




(1) I am employing Kenneth Clark's distinction between the naked and the nude. A person is naked when they are momentarily unclothed. A nude person is habitually naked - like a mythical goddess or nymph.
(2) In contrast, Frank Sinatra often left his largely female audiences in such a state, merely from his mellifluous singing, that the auditorium seats had to be steam-cleaned after his concerts.
(3) Ms Steinem's comments can be found in full here.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Smoke

"Did you ever hear of Sir Walter Raleigh? Well, Raleigh was the person who introduced tobacco in England. And since he was a favorite of the Queen's, smoking caught on as a fashion in court. I'm sure old Bess must've shared a stogie or two with Sir Walter. Once, he made a bet that he could measure the weight of smoke. First he took an unsmoked cigar, and he put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up. He smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan along with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference was the weight of the smoke." (William Hurt as Paul Benjamin in Smoke)


Having lived among smokers all my life, I know of the two occasions when smoking a cigarette is considered de rigeur - right after a meal and after sex. I don't profess to know exactly why. Perhaps, after eating, the combination of flavors on one palate heightens the taste of the tobacco. After sex, a cigarette perhaps fills the momentary empty space, the bothersome moment when words are felt to be necessary, but none are forthcoming.

Of all the things that the 20th century will be remembered for, the curious habit of tobacco smoking must be one of them. At one point in their popularity, Lucky Strikes cigarettes and Zippo lighters were standard issue for America servicemen in World War Two. Today, some movies feel the need to place caveats in their end credits that assure viewers that the producers "did not receive any payment or other consideration . . . for the depiction of tobacco products in the film." Now I notice how many actors in movies - obvious non-smokers - fumble around so inexpertly with a cigarette.

Set in New York in 1990, a quite different city from Mayor Bloomberg's, in which it is now a criminal offense to smoke in public places (including parks and beaches), a small miracle of a film called Smoke (1995) is credited to Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. Among other things, it is a celebration of tobacco smoking, in which one of the main characters, Augustus "Auggie" Wren operates a tobacco shop in Brooklyn. The character is played by Harvey Keitel, turning in one of his most satisfying performances. William Hurt plays a writer named Paul Benjamin whose love for Schimmelpennincks (a thin cigar) makes him a regular in Auggie's store. In an early scene, a conversation between Auggie and the shop's former owner, Vincent, makes the film's allegiances clear:

Vincent: I should stop smoking ... Fuckers are gonna kill me one of these days.
Auggie: Enjoy yourself while you can, Vin ... They're gonna legislate us outta business pretty soon anyway.
Vincent: Yeah. Pretty soon, they catch you smoking tobacco, they'll line you up against a wall and shoot you.
Auggie: Yeah. Tobacco today. Sex tomorrow. Three or four years, it'll probably be against the law to smile at strangers.


In the splendid film Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, the great actor looks back on a lifetime of smoking:

"It's ridiculous, when you think about it, around 50 cigarettes a day for 50 years makes almost one million cigarettes. It's enough to cover the sky over Rome. But why? You know it's harmful, and yet you continue. Does it help fill a gap? Even though I admit that it's harmful, I'm sick of Americans. They go too far. What do they want? To put smokers in a ghetto? Let people live and die as they choose."


One day in Auggie's store, Paul notices a camera on the counter and wonders if someone might've forgotten it there. When Auggie tells him that the camera belongs to him, Paul says,

"I didn't know you took pictures.
Auggie: I guess you could call it a hobby.
Paul: So, you're not just some guy who pushes coins across a counter.

Since it's closing time, Auggie invites Paul back to his place and shows him a stack of photo albums. He opens one, and discovers, turning the pages of one album after another, that all the photographs seem identical.

"Paul: They're all the same.
Auggie: That's right. More than 4,000 pictures of the same place. The corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at 8:00 in the morning. Four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather.
Paul: I've never seen anything like this.
Auggie: It's my project. What you'd call my life's work ... It's my corner, after all. I mean, it's just one little part of the world. But things take place there, too. Just like everywhere else. It's a record of my little spot. You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend.
Paul: What do you mean?
Auggie: I mean, you're going too fast. You're hardly even lookin' at the pictures.
Paul: But they're all the same.
Auggie: They're all the same. But each one is different from every other one. You got your bright mornings and your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle. You know how it is. 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Time creeps on its petty pace.'"

Taking Auggie's advice, Paul looks at each photograph intently and suddenly notices, walking past the camera in one of them, his pregnant wife who was killed after leaving Auggie's store by a stray bullet a year or so before (see photo above). Paul Auster, author of the novel The Music of Chance, and the writer of Smoke, is fixated on chance. In an interview, he spoke about how, when he was a boy, a friend standing right beside him was struck by lightning and killed. Ever since, he said, he thinks about the capriciousness of his friend being killed instead of him. In another scene from Smoke, Auggie talks about how he might have taken a few more seconds with Paul's wife's change, or in some other way delayed her departure from his store on the day she walked in front of that bullet.


I have never been a smoker, but I have to say that I am disgusted at the transparently puritanical crusade being carried out across America (and now even in some European countries) to completely ostracize people who smoke. I'm convinced that the claims that it is a public safety issue are utterly bogus. No scientist will ever convince me that the dissipating smoke around a person smoking a cigarette is more than an infinitesimally small degree as hazardous to my health as the super-heated smoke being inhaled through the cigarette. It's one thing to go after Big Tobacco, which has been sued innumerable times for its lies to the public. But to try and force people who choose to smoke to stop by kicking them out of public places and their work-places, forcing them to smoke outdoors in an alley, or even going after them in their private spaces, is an outrageous imposition of the law and is brazenly aimed not at protecting people's health, but at interfering with the genuine pleasure that smokers derive from their chosen "addiction."

I don't smoke, but so many of my friends and family are smokers that, when they do me the courtesy of asking if I mind before they light up, I tell them to smoke as much as they please. And if you were to tell me, as some well-paid scientists are doing, that their exhaled smoke, and the smoke from their cigarettes dissipating around me, is hazardous to my health, it would be like telling a priest to put out the candles in his church.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Remembering Ray

When The Paris Review sent William Plummer to interview Ray Bradbury in the late 1970s, George Plimpton, the magazine's publisher, returned a transcript of the interview to Bradbury, where it was discovered among his papers by Sam Weller, who has since written a biography of Bradbury. Attached to the transcript was a memo from Plimpton saying that he found the first draft “a bit informal in places, maybe overly enthusiastic.” The interview was never published. Bradbury was supposed to make his own changes and return the transcript to Plimpton, but he failed to do so and couldn't (in 2010) remember why.

With Bradbury's help, Weller added finishing touches to the interview, and The Paris Review published it in 2010. After I read the interview, I can see why Plimpton had misgivings about publishing it. The magazine has been publishing interviews with some of the greatest writers of the time, like T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Cheever, and Borges. Bradbury is remembered as a science fiction, horror, and mystery writer. It was his 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 that attracted serious attention, however, and it was adapted to film by François Truffaut in 1966.

I remember one of his stories that I must've read in junior high school about a bedridden old millionaire who spends his time telephoning the offices of his international company and having someone dangle the phone outside the window so that he can hear the noises of Rome or London or Buenos Aires. At the story's end, the old man expires and, when his nurse discovers him dead, she takes the receiver out of his hand and puts it to her ear. The only thing she hears is the sound of the phone on the other end hanging up.

Like many other successful writers of his generation, Bradbury worked extensively in Hollywood. I don't know what he thought of Truffaut's version of Fahrenheit 451, which I thought was hamstrung by its small budget. It looks terribly dated today, but it shows off a deep reverence for literature, which Truffaut shared with Bradbury. In its last scenes, the hero, Montag, has fled to the countryside where he meets people named David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn - so named because they have memorized the books by those titles in a world where books are outlawed.

Bradbury's admiration for great books and great authors is betrayed, however, by his comments in the Paris Interview. Early in the interview, he says, "If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it."

Bradbury expressed interest in writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as a few forgotten ones like Theodore Sturgeon and Van Vogt (contributors to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction). When he read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, he said "I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars." He spoke of his interest in Thomas Wolfe and Eudora Welty, but when he was asked "What about Proust, Joyce, Flaubert, Nabokov—writers who tend to think of literature in terms of style and form," he replied:

"No. If people put me to sleep, they put me to sleep. God, I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep. The same for Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have many ideas."

Then it was suggested that he write the screenplay for the Hollwoodization of War and Peace. As Bradbury recalled,

"I was offered the chance to write War and Peace for the screen a few decades ago. The American version with King Vidor directing. I turned it down. Everyone said, How could you do that? That’s ridiculous, it’s a great book! I said, Well, it isn’t for me. I can’t read it. I can’t get through it, I tried. That doesn’t mean the book’s bad. I just am not prepared for it. It portrays a very special culture. The names throw me."

Later, director John Huston contacted him: "Do you have some time to come to Europe and write Moby-Dick for the screen? I said, I don’t know, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing." He broke down and read "the damn thing" and wrote the screenplay. "I got out of the bed one morning in London, walked over to the mirror and said, I am Herman Melville. The ghost of Melville spoke to me and on that day I rewrote the last thirty pages of the screenplay. It all came out in one passionate explosion. I ran across London and took it to Huston. He said, My God, this is it." So Bradbury rewrote the novel's ending for Huston's incredibly shallow film version.

Bradbury admits to being self-educated:

"Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library ... you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books? They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself."

It's one thing to prefer some writers to others - everyone has personal preferences - or to dislike an intellectual approach to the arts. But it's quite another thing for a well-known writer to openly show off his ignorance of works of literature, and to deliberately avoid the writings of Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and Melville because he finds them boring or unreadable. It's actually quite irresponsible. His comments on those far superior writers and books are embarrassing proof of his quite abysmal taste. Bradbury was one of those phenomenally successful writers of trash like Edgar Wallace, or the recently deceased Elmore Leonard who devoted themselves to writing on an almost industrial scale whatever they pleased, with varying levels of intensity and control. Perhaps Bradbury knew this when he re-read the manuscript that George Plimpton sent him for editing, and declined to have his words published. That Plimpton wasn't around when the interview was finally published is evidence, I suppose, of editorial discretion.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Remastering the Film: Bertrand Tavernier


While I am still at it, my list of unfinished business reminds me that I have yet to finish a modest project that I started in 2011, Remastering the Film, a series of profiles of what I consider to be the world's greatest filmmakers.

Some people seem born to make films. Vigo, Fellini, Kurosawa. What would they have done with themselves, I wonder, if they hadn't been filmmakers? Others, like Bruce Beresford, Zhang Yimou, and the man I celebrate today, Bertrand Tavernier, seem to go about their business as filmmakers more deliberately and methodically. It's easy to imagine them excelling at some other pursuit, like philosophy, the Law, or even politics.

If one discounts the critical argument levelled by François Truffaut at the legendary script-writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (1), which was one of the many strange ways in which the Cahiers du Cinema critics cannibalized their national cinema, Bertrand Tavernier is easily the best French filmmaker of his generation. Tavernier saw the sheer idiocy and injustice of Truffaut's argument, and got the elderly Aurenche (2) to write the the scripts for his first three feature films, Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), The Clockmaker (1974), and The Judge and the Murderer (1976), three first films whose brilliance and uniqueness rival those of Truffaut himself. Tavernier later adapted a novel by Pierre Bost for his luminous film, A Sunday in the Country (1983).

After such a brilliant start to his career, it would've been predictable if Tavernier had slid into a sharp decline, as just about every notable French director (Including Truffaut) had done before him. He did experience a somewhat self-indulgent phase, with Des Enfants Gates (1977), the often charming but slight A Week's Vacation (1980) and the clever but terribly arch Coup de Torchon (1981). He regained his sure footing with the exquisite A Sunday in the Country, which explores the world of a painter of the Impressionist era.   

Of all his films, I've seen, I am sad to say, only eleven. It's difficult for me to choose a favorite. The Clockmaker portrays a loving father's inability to deliver his son from evil. The Judge and the Murderer shows us how clumsily human justice punishes the worst crimes. A Sunday in the Country opens for us the heart and mind of an old artist. It All Begins Today (1999) delineates the heartbreaking inadequacy of compassion.

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of his latest films, The Princess of Montpensier (2010) (3), based on a story by Madame de La Fayette and starring the stunning Mélanie Thierry. As in his earlier earlier La Passion Beatrice (1987), Tavernier breathed life into past lives and a bygone era with subtlety and great art. Tavernier's latest film, Quai d'Orsay, is a comedy starring Thierry Lhermitte. It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last month.


(1) The essay was published in 1954 and centered on a treatment the team had written of the Georges Bernanos novel Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne, which was rejected by the director Robert Bresson. Due partly to the essay, and the decline of the directors they had worked for, they found little work in the Sixties.
(2) Aurenche was 71 at the time.
(3) The film premiered in competition at Cannes on my birthday. (It lost to a Thai film called Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Touching a Void

Not that I was waiting with bated breath (not after ten years anyway), but I finally watched the film Touching the Void (2003) a few nights ago, and I found it both a fulfillment of my expectations and something less. What I expected was another paean to mountain climbing in general, a celebration of what compels perfectly healthy and seemingly contented people to risk losing it all scaling the world's highest mountain peaks - going where few people (or no one in Touching the Void) have gone before. What I didn't expect, even after reading Stanley Kauffmann's less than laudatory review, was that the film should ultimately be so, well, vacuous. Not because it is poorly made. It's actually quite beautifully made.(1) I found it vacuous because it's far more impressive than its subject.

With neither elaboration nor embroidery, the film - a "docudrama" (with the dramatic events re-enacted as described by the real participants of the drama) - tells the somewhat belated story of how, in 1985, two experienced mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, climbed the West face of Siula Grande, a 20,813 foot high mountain in the Peruvian Andes. These two Englishmen arrive at their decision because no one has ever attempted to climb the West Face, for excellent reasons (as the film makes clear), and also to attempt an "Alpine Climb," without any preparation, proceeding directly from their base camp to the top of the mountain, carrying all that they think they will need in backpacks. They take on this challenge with a strangely and ominously casual manner, like it's a weekend outing.

The "void" in the film's title is left undefined. It could refer to the void beyond the earth's atmosphere to which standing atop a 20,000 foot mountain puts one a little closer. Or the title could refer to the void to which we all go eventually. Both climbers come up against this second void during the course of their descent from the mountain peak. As I expected, however, the film doesn't come close to living up to its vaunted title.

Leaving all their gear at base camp with a fellow they barely know (he doesn't even know their full names), Simpson and Yates set out and manage to reach the mountain peak without complications. On their descent, however, they choose the North Ridge, and soon find themselves running out of supplies and poorly equipped to get down. While Yates is slowly lowering Simpson, Simpson painfully fractures his leg. With his hands frozen and with poor weather bearing down on them, Yates is faced with no other choice but to cut the rope bearing Simpson. Simpson falls into an ice cave, banged up but alive. When Yates arrives there, he assumes that Simpson is dead, and continues down the mountain. The rest of the story is "re-created" quite effectively. But one has to wonder if the risks that the film's cast and crew took to re-create the events of 1985 weren't greater and more impressive than the events themselves.

What the film also left me wondering, as all these moutaineering movies do, is, finally, why? Why do they do it? The old answer, as George Mallory put it ("because it's there"), was never intended to provide an answer. Another answer I've heard is "if you need to ask why, you'll never understand the answer." This sort of evasiveness makes me think that the mountain climbers themselves don't have a clear grasp of their reasons for so routinely and, to me, foolhardedly risking their necks for such a dubious achievement.

George Plimpton once said that ordinary people admire great athletes because of their ability to perform physical feats with ease and grace that are extremely difficult for us mere humans. A mountain climber is called an "athlete," but climbing a mountain requires neither talent nor athletic ability. A tiny but - significantly - growing number of people climb mountains. There are so few of them, obviously, not because it is so difficult but because, like sky diving, it is inordinately hazardous. Most of us would rather avoid putting our lives at risk. We prefer safer, even vicarious, thrills (like movie thrillers).

The pride that mountain climbers presumably attain in the pursuit of their hobby comes at a price that the vast majority of people is unprepared to pay. In his review of Touching the Void, Stanley Kauffmann was more explicit:

"Mountain climbing, of all dangerous sports, has always seemed to me the silliest . . . The very word 'sport' seems fraudulent. Other risky pursuits have some grace in them, some sense of competition, of victory or defeat: mountain climbing has none. Worse, what we may take for admiration of the climber's courage is - admitted or not - a decline into degeneracy. Death is what we are watching for . . . Further, mountain climbing, more than any other risk-taking, is wrapped is vacuous philosophy, even theology, flourishing out of its physical aspects."

Practitioners of "extreme sports" like mountain climbing have become known, contemptuously, as "adrenaline junkies." But I think this is inaccurate. I think that it is for something much more basic that these people go to such extremes. When a mountain climber reaches the peak and looks out over the world below, is he not feeling, at last, what the rest of us feel upon waking up in the morning? Who we are, where we are, what day it is, what time it is? Neurologists may one day discover, as some already claim to have done, that a chemical present in a sufficient quantity in the brains of most people that is responsible for their feeling of sentience, of being alive, is conspicuously lacking in a few others, who have to climb mountains to attain the same degree of sentience.


(1) Directed by Kevin Macdonald and photographed (spectacularly) by Mike Eley and Keith Partridge.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Scaling the World

Watching an American movie recently (Sean Penn's Into the Wild) with some Filipino friends, left them wondering aloud where all the people could have gone from the deserts of the American Southwest or from the woods of Alaska. I explained that much of the American West is like that - that one can drive for miles at a time on highways without seeing another car or a house. And it's likely to stay that way as long as people continue to migrate to cities. The only way to comprehend the sheer size of America is to drive across it.

But the size of many nations in the world is comparably small. The expansiveness of America makes it hard for many Americans to comprehend the comparable tininess of most modern nations. The Philippines, for example, is made up of 7,107 islands, most of which are uninhabited because of a lack of a fresh water source. The total land area of the Philippines, including it's lakes and rivers, is estimated to be around 120,000 square miles, making it 73rd on the list of the world's largest countries. It also makes the Philippines only slightly smaller than the state American state of New Mexico.(1)

The United States is the 4th largest country in the world, behind Russia, Canada and China. Since a little more than one-third of Americans have bothered to acquire a passport (2), signifying their indifference to the attractions of the rest of the world, it might be diverting to some to conduct an informal survey of the comparative dimensions of different countries in relation to our fifty American states.

Afghanistan, which American soldiers have had to explore for nearly twelve years, is smaller than Texas. So is France, which is the biggest European nation. Sweden is only about ten thousand square miles larger than California. All of the Japanese islands constitute an area that is slightly smaller than Montana. Germany, even with East and West now united, is ten thousand square miles smaller than Montana. No wonder Hitler wanted Lebensraum ("living space").

Italy is less than a thousand square miles smaller than Arizona. New Zealand is about the same size as Colorado. The United Kingdom, which includes (as of this writing), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is a tad bigger than Michigan (and this is a country whose Royal Navy ruled the waves!). Greece is slightly smaller than Louisiana. Syria, all over the news, is a bit bigger than Washington state. Austria is a bit bigger than South Carolina.

I have written before about the meaning and importance of borders and other lines of demarcation. In another movie, Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch, the gang arrives at the banks of a river, on the other side of which is Mexico. Angel, played by Jaime Sánchez exclaims in Spanish how beautiful it looks to him. Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson) says, "Just looks like more Texas far as I'm concerned." Angel replies, "You have no eyes!"


(1) By population, however, the Philippines is ranked 12th in the world, with 98,346,000 people. Try to imagine that many people in New Mexico. California, 40,000 square miles bigger, has about one-third the population of the Philippines.
(2) A pleasant surprise is that the number is on the rise. Nearly 110 million Americans (out of 313 million) now have passports.

[Look closer at the map (click on the image). All the names are in Cyrillic.]

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Long Shadow of Spain

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

from W.H. Auden, "Spain"



Looked at from the perspective of a pacifist (which I decidedly am not), I think it would be impossible to decide which is worse - the man who shouts "Allah Akbar" as he fires a rocket into a crowd of people standing in line for bread or the man who says nothing as he presses his thumb on a button that signals a drone aircraft a thousand miles away to launch a Hellfire missile on a house in which a suspected terrorist, along with members of his family, is residing.

And yet this is where we stand today. Terrorists can't possibly win a "fair fight" with the United States or any other modern army. So they hijack our commercial jets and fly them into skyscrapers. Or try to blow us up by lining their shoes or their underwear with explosives. Or they create bombs for which we had to invent the term "Improvised Explosive Device" that kill American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

By now, we all know that Bashar Al-Assad, dictator of Syria, is a monster to equal previous monsters like Saddam Hussein (death by hanging) and Gaddafi (death by ?). So what are we to do about him? No one appears to have a stomach for another shot at Regime Change. There was another time when no one (except the bad guys) had an appetite for war. It was the Thirties. Most armies were commanded by veterans of The Great War, the war that was supposed to end armed conflicts. Certainly Hitler had to be stopped, but no one in his right mind relished the idea of carrying it out. Certainly enough people remember what that war cost humanity.

Then came Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Shock and Awe, and whatever the ongoing mission in Afghanistan is called. Not to mention the Cold War, which seemed (20 years ago) to end in victory. U.S. and Allied forces are "scheduled" to pull out of Afghanistan next year. Nobody in his right mind could call it a victory. Our leaders' use of the ridiculous term "limited war" is nothing but their resignation to eventual defeat. Despite its coinage in the Boer War, nobody seems to know how to win a "guerrilla war".

In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay he called "Looking Back On the Spanish War". The Spanish War was, of course, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in which the elected government of the Second Spanish Republic was (eventually) overthrown by a military coup led by Fascist General Franco. Fascist Italy and Germany supported - with men and weapons - the Franco side, while people who touted various left-leaning political agendas went to Spain to fight in "International Brigades", as well as with Spanish militias. Orwell fought in one such militia, and was wounded in the throat. Soviet Russia also provided guns and an untold number of unsolicited and often clandestine Communist spies to the Republican side.

What Orwell wrote about the "Spanish war" in 1942 sounds strangely familiar [italics are mine]:

"As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on an off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be 'pro-war' or 'anti-war', but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds. . . . We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don't take the sword perish by smelly diseases."