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.