Monday, June 22, 2015

In Memoriam: James Salter


Saturday, June 20, 2015. I read in the Times that the writer James Salter has died at age 90. He was a month younger than I, and a schoolmate in my senior year at the Horace Mann School (in the Bronx, according to the Times, though we thought of it as Riverdale). We were friendly, if not quite friends.

But then, how was one to be friends with Jim? All through the years I tried, but he remained mostly aloof. On the other hand, he was very affable when we talked at a birthday party for Bill Becker of Criterion Films, perhaps in part because his second wife, Kay Eldredge (whomI knew and liked at New York magazine) had been my tablemate. She assured me that they would soon get together, as once before, with my wife and me, which, however, did not come about.

My earliest recollection of Jim, though surely not the first contact, was at Commencement at Horace Mann. I was going down to the basement to empty my locker; he was coming up the stairs having emptied his. Earlier, the headmaster had introduced him to the audience as “the schoolboy poet,” and me as the country’s top Latinist on that year’s college board exams.

Jim was one of the five or six members of the Poetry Society, to which I also belonged, but whose meetings I couldn’t attend because they conflicted with a chemistry class. We had both published poems in the annual poetry yearbook, which I have kept until recently when it got lost.

Anyway, on the staircase, Jim greeted me with “Hi, John, I didn’t know you were such a Latinist,” and I responded with, “Hi, Jim, I didn’t know you were a poet.” He was then known as Jimmy Horowitz, his real name, which he changed (eventually legally) to Salter, to avoid anti-Semitism, first at West Point, and later in the Air Force. I was told that Salter was his mother’s maiden name, though the obituary had it as Mildred Scheff.

I then lost track of Jim until George Plimpton’s publication party for his “A Sport and a Pastime,” attended by too many glitterati for Jim to have wasted much time on me. But I did acquire a copy of that novel, yet cannot now remember whether I read it or not, but must have at least skimmed it, given that it contained enough sex to be turned down by any number of publishers.

It tells the story, I gather, of a Yale graduate’s perambulations and wild sex in France with a young French working-class girl, as reported by a not entirely reliable third party. Here I must note that Jim was a tremendous ladies’ man, being very good-looking and doubtless a silken enough talker to melt many a maiden’s resistance if any there was—resistance, that is, not maiden.

I remained ignorant of much of his early writings (several with flying themes), as well as the dozen or so short film documentaries he created with his friend Lane Slate, such as “Team Team Team,” about football, which surprisingly carried off the relevant prize at the Venice Film Festival.

In the Air Force, he flew over a hundred missions and, in the Korean War, downed one MIG. He had worked his way up to colonel by the time he quit soldiering in 1957, never forgetting those precious years.

He made some features in Hollywood, notably “Downhill Racer” (1969), with Robert Redford, which garnered good reviews, including mine. I noted that the skiers “spoke in a kind of Hemingway of the slopes, which, however, does not lapse into parody.” I further opined that it “does not get beyond the level of competent, intelligent entertainment,” but also learned, possibly from Jim himself, “how much guff the scenarist had to take from Paramount,” and “to what extent the script had to be softened and watered down.”

So formidable had Jim become as a writer of fiction, travel, drama and even poetry, that a group of writers living like him on Long Island, who had their own club, never invited him to join, feeling that he was way too much above the rest of them. As the obituary stated, he had married Ann Altemus  in 1951, living with her for a quarter century  before their divorce, mostly in the Hudson Valley, a very genteel, gentile life, both spouses having affairs on the side. It is that divorce that inspired Jim’s masterpiece, “Light Years” (1976).

In it, Jim’s special talents became most manifest, eliciting praise from all sides, especially for his sentences. The editor and critic Michael Dirda wrote that “Salter is the contemporary writer most admired by other writers . . . He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.” James Wolcott, who called him ostentatiously America’s “most underrated underrated author,” also mentioned that “even his verbless sentences remain sturdy.”

In reviewing Salter’s 1985 memoir, “Burning the Days,” for the Times, Richard Bernheim praised the “chiseled sentences and deft evocation of moods.” And the novelist Richard Ford wrote elsewhere, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” And when he received the Pen/Malamud Award, the citation stated that his writings show the readers “how to work with fire, flames, the laser, all the forces of life at the service of creating sentences that sparkle and make stories burn.”

So what are we to make of this recurring motif, the extolled sentence in Jim’s writing? I would say that it proclaims him preeminently as a stylist, with reference to the great attention paid to, and effect achieved with, every single sentence, so as to maximize that expressivity also known as beauty.

I am glad to learn that he was also lauded for what turned out to be his ultimate work, the novel “All That Is” (2013), a fitting coda, I gather (I haven’t read it), to a major literary life.

A life, be it said, not lacking in tragedy, as when one of his children, a grown daughter, took a shower in his unfinished house in Aspen, and was electrocuted, with him having to retrieve her dead, naked body. He remarked, “I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child.”

The obituary cites a number of notable honors, but also points out that he never achieved the wider popularity that he believed constituted true greatness, The most a book of his sold was 12,000 copies. There is something elliptical verging on ever so slightly cryptic about his writing, forcing the majority reader into doing something he wants to avoid: stop and think. A favorite device is skipping in a rendered conversation to specify who said which.

We once ran into each other in the men’s fashion department of Bloomingdale’s, and I recall his commenting with a certain amount of envy about how well I dressed, though I am sure that he did it just as well. Another time I got a phone call from him inquiring about how good a certain actor was who was interested in getting produced and starring in one of Kay Eldredge’s plays. I gave the actor an acceptable grade, but the play was never heard about again.

And then there was the single time when Jim, Kay (whom he married after many years of their living together), my wife and I were dining at a downtown Soba Noodle spot shortly after 9/11. At a nearby table sat Yoko Ono, whom I intercepted as she was leaving. In a brief conversation she recalled that I was the only critic to give a good notice to a musical she had written--New York Rock--which the WPA Theatre had mounted. This led to an acquaintanceship and her sponsoring my blog.

As concrete evidence I have only one 1994 typewritten picture postcard  from Jim, which I came across in my copy of his Pen-Prize-winning “Dusk and Other Stories,” one of which, “Cinema,” I discussed with my students at the Sarah Lawrence College Center for Continuing Education.

Anyway, the card is clearly a giveaway from a stay at New York’s Ritz-Carlton, and reads in full: “Dear John, what beautiful handwriting. If I did not know you I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence [Note the irony in that statement]. I’m going to be away in Wyoming and Colorado, not for sport, for about 10 days. Will call you sometime after I get back.  Best, Jim   Salter, Sagaponack

The call, of course, never came. But the card is puzzling. On hard, cardboard-type paper, it had to have been run through a typewriter, yet, miraculously, shows no sign of any sort of mangling. Next, what did Jim need a hotel in New York for? And why is the return address Sagaponack, when he resided in Bridgehampton? And why does the postmark read Hicksville? The signature is handwritten, sort of like J i m—why the spaces?

As I said, there was something a bit mysterious about James Salter.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chide That Name!

Whether you realize it or not, names are a part of language, and a by no means unimportant one. I am not even referring to such a somewhat esoteric phenomenon as a proper noun becoming a common one—e.g., Sandwich, Mackintosh, Wellington boots—but to proper names improperly used and a threat to correct usage.

Consider the shocker when a prize-winning racehorse bears the misspelled name American Pharoah. Pharoah, alas, is a fairly common misspelling of pharaoh, but it does not usually get this kind of publicity and fame. The Times of May 23 has an article, “American Pharoah’s Misspelling Mystery,” that sheds light on the matter.

You cannot, of course, blame the horse itself, which, however much horse sense it may possess, does not know with what moniker it has been blessed or cursed. Its chief owner is a rich Egyptian, Ahmad Zayat, owner of Zayat Stables, and you would expect an Egyptian, of all people, to know how to spell pharaoh. But oh no. To be sure, I wonder how many Americans can spell Roosevelt correctly.

Still, no matter what Ahmed Zayat may or may not know, surely there ought to have been a decent speller in his stable—his son, Justin, perhaps. It turns out, however, that not even the Jockey Club took steps to rectify the error. As James L. Gagliano, the Club’s president and CEO put it, “Since the name met all of the criteria for naming and was available, it was granted exactly as it was spelled.”

It now emerges that the Zayat Stables hold an online contest for the naming of their horses, and thus there was the invitation to the public in 2014 to name their crop of two-year-olds. And who won the contest for naming this future champion? It’s all there in the Times: Marsha Baumgartner, of Barnett, Mo., depicted in the paper with her husband, Dave, and described as “a 64-year-old registered nurse in a tiny central Missouri town.”

Unfortunately, though there is a register for nurses, there is none for illiterates. If you inspect the picture, you will find two typical unglamorous Midwesterners of the small-town variety, she even, as one suspects from her chubby cheeks, overweight, but when it comes to learning and refinement, clearly lightweight.

When asked, she commented: “I don’t remember how I spelled it; I don’t want to assign blame. I looked up the spelling before I entered.” That she won’t assign blame is understandable, given on whom it would fall. It also figures that she doesn’t remember how she spelled it, since she managed to forget the spelling in the comparatively short time between looking it up and sending it out.

There is also the question of where, if she isn’t fibbing, she did that looking up. Does she own a reputable dictionary? Or did she find the word in some other worthy publication, say the Sears catalogue or the Farmer’s Almanac. “Pharaoh,” I suspect, is one of the most misspelled words in America, whether the perpetrators are from the ranks of born-again Christians or college students.

What I find somewhat more surprising is discovering that the Jockey Club found the name within the rules, “which include an 18-character limit (Pioneerof the Nile was rendered that way to conform to the guidelines) and a ban on obscene or offensive phrases.” Personally, I consider “pharoah” not just offensive, but actually nothing less than obscene. And, speaking of “less,” Melissa Hoppert, author of the Times article, states that up to six names per horse can be submitted, although “the average is two or less.” Though “fewer” would be correct here, even that seems problematic where “one or two” would be more natural.

T. S. Eliot has written compellingly about the naming of cats, and thus influenced the nomenclature of the musical of that name. Nobody has weighed in on the naming of horses, which strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. But then again, no more so than the naming of some people.

Consider if you will the name of a promising black tennis player, a young man named Frances Tiefoe. Yes, Frances, not Francis. Now whatever may have prompted the parents to give their son a girl’s name—ignorance being the most charitable interpretation—you would think that he himself, with or without friendly advice, would see fit to have his name legally transgendered.

Well, some tennis players do have odd names: no fewer than two women—one white, one black—are called Madison (Keys and Brengle), and one can’t help wondering whether it is derived from a president or an avenue. But a male Frances is unique.

Why does any of this matter? Because where famous persons or equines are concerned, such misguidedness becomes influential and widespread. And the instigators don’t even need to be famous. I doubt whether the first person who mispronounced “grocery” as “groshery” was a celebrity, yet behold the result.

Egypt, for example, is an unlikely culprit. But look: not only Pharoah, but also Pioneerof the Nile. Does it have to be an Egyptian river? Were there no pioneers of the Amazon? Never mind, though. Misnomers will always be among us, only let it not be on account of a prominent horse or sportsman. Granted Tiefoe is not yet celebrated, but he could well become so. And then what might be the names of his future male colleagues: Mary, Josephine, or, tomorrow, Tamara?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Gunter Grass


With Gunter Grass, who just died at age 87, I had a brief friendship. I translated for him on a popular radio show, and I introduced him at his reading at the Y. I also met his charming first wife, Anna, a Swiss dancer, and acquiesced in his friendly cavil: why must I everywhere find some fault, i.e., be hypercritical (though not of him). Our ways parted amicably, and there was no further contact. Incidentally: can a critic be hypercritical? An architect, hyperarchitectural? An ophthalmologist, hyperocular?

He was a major writer. Though of interest in his early poems and later plays, and of real charm in his drawings (I never saw his sculptures), it was with two of his early novels, “The Tin Drum” and “Dog Years,” that he achieved international stature: two novels of lasting luster, both of which I reviewed with due enthusiasm. Later, even as good a novel as “The Flounder” seemed a bit overlong: too many over-drawn-out parts among the indisputably brilliant ones.

He did also publish his political writings, many of them stomping speeches for Willy Brandt, but political writings tend to be primarily of specific, temporary interest, and only secondarily transcending into universality, into permanence.

Especially remarkable in his later years was his outing of himself. That he had been a member of the Hitler Youth can be readily excused, comparable to our youthful joining of the Boy Scouts. But subsequent time in the Waffen-SS was less innocuous, even if, as the Times obituary pointed out, it was “near the end of the war, and [he] was never accused of atrocities,  [though] the fact that he had obscured the crucial point of his background while flagellating his fellow Germans for cowardice set off cries of outrage.”

There was something likable even in Grass’s appearance. It is nice when an artist makes no attempt to look like one, avoiding the aura of regimentation of even that harmless bohemian kind. Grass was of medium stature, rather stocky, and with a walrus mustache more befitting a German general or emperor. That, and a certain glint in his gaze, gave him the aspect of a canny peasant whose wit had let him ascend to the ranks of the solid bourgeoisie, which in Germany has a way of looking even more bourgeois than its equivalent in other countries. He rather reminded me of the successful upstart Lopakhin in Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard.”

No other major novelist since Rabelais has, to my knowledge, made as much of eating—indeed gourmandising—as Gunter Grass has. And not only eating, but also cooking. He was himself a pretty good cook. Consider the following, from the memoirs of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s preeminent literary critic. Not especially fond of Grass’s writing, R-R nevertheless accepted a dinner invitation from Grass: “He would, with his own hand, prepare a meal for us [R-R and his wife, Tosia]. I accepted despite my memory of a soup made by Grass, which I had recklessly eaten in the summer of 1965, on the occasion of the wedding of . . . Walter Hoellerer . . . . It had tasted disgusting. I expected the worst. But then a critic must have courage. . . . He served us fish. Now I hate and fear fishbones. And I did not realize that there existed any fish with quite so many bones. . . . Anyway, it was both a torture and a delight. Undistinguished as he may have been as a producer of soup, he was magnificent with fish. The meal was risky but tasty—and it had no ill effects whatsoever either for Tosia or myself. Yet it had some consequences. What was left of the fish, mainly its numerous bones, was sketched by grass the following day. And very soon this fish was at the center of a novel by him. It was a flounder.”

I would guess that having a grocer father was that much more likely to produce an esurient son. And so we have cooks popping up everywhere in his writings, most notably in the play, “The Evil Cooks.” But also in “The Flounder,” where we get a wonderful of nine (or eleven) noteworthy female cooks through the ages, some real  some fictitious. Hence the “or eleven.” As the critic Peter Demetz put it, Grass “initially intended to write a prose epic about the primary role of food in world history, but that at a later stage, coming to grips with an irrepressible crew of formidable women—some fictional, some real—who did the world’s important cooking, he confronted recent feminist ideas about women in culture at large. “The Flounder” is an ample, exuberant, and skillfully structured narrative about eating, cooking, procreating, women and a cunning fish . . .”

The book contains among other things, as Patrick O’Neill has written, “a generous selection of recipes for outlandish dishes,” but all sorts of details deal indirectly with food. In reviewing “The Flounder,” John Updike has written, “when at the end [Ilsebill]’s husband/narrator, watching her undergo a Caesarian operation, notes that ‘I also saw how yellow, like duck fat, Ilsebill’s belly fat is. A piece of it crumbled off and I could have fried two eggs on it,’ his tortuously ramifying theme of food is brought to a point that hurts.” This passage exemplifies Grass’s important use of the grotesque, and the way he so often manages to use springboards leaping back to food or cooking.”

Of equal importance is that he is writing fables, i.e., books in which there is an element of the fabulous. And fables almost always feature symbolic animals. Observe only his titles, in which cat, mouse, dog, toad, female rat, flounder, and snail make their appearances, even if the mouse is only a hypertrophic Adam’s apple, and the toad only a voice. These animals live; the flounder talks, the snail keeps a diary.

Eventually Grass got what was long prophesied for him, the Nobel Prize, although by that time most of his books were also seriously questioned and even, as in the case of “My Century,” poorly reviewed. Nor did it matter that he reused some of his subjects, as, for instance, the grinding poverty of Calcutta appearing in both his fiction and nonfiction.

My own notice of “The Tin Drum” for Partisan Review and reprinted in my collection “The Sheep from the Goats,” as well as being the lead essay in Patrick O’Neill’s anthology “Critical Essays on Gunter Grass,” satisfies me upon rereading, as not all of my earlier writings do, though some amaze me with their prescience. I recognized in Grass what Salman Rushdie did in his introduction to “On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983.” He spoke of “books which give [writers] permission to travel . . . become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A passport is a kind of book.” And, inversely, a book can be a kind of passport.

It has been pointed out that Grass was a precursor of the “magic realism” that came to us much later from writers in South America. As Rushdie observes, what the wildest fantasy leads to may seem on one level absurd, but is hopeful underneath. And thus liberating.

P.S.: I regret not having the umlaut for the U in Gunter. The customary substitute, an added E as in Guenter, seemed to me awkward and alienating.

Friday, April 10, 2015

STUPIDITY


Stupidity, I am sorry to say, is no joke, as it is portrayed on stage, screen and TV. It is the second worst crime against humanity and a very close runner-up to evil. It is neither necessarily heedless (it can be the very best and most considered that some persons can manage) nor headless (as it lodges snugly under many a cranium). It can crop up even in the oldest and wisest, perhaps most strikingly there.

It has many forms. It boasts in equal profusion crimes of omission and of commission. It can pop up in the most unexpected places, such as the philosopher who on an icy day steps out without his overcoat, or the accomplished cook who gets burned more than once. It can make heroism look stupid—rightly so—in those brave in a bad cause or heroic in a foolish war. How right Brecht, who was often wrong, was when he wrote, “Happy is the nation that has no need for a hero.”

Take the populations of the mightiest nations and ask yourself how many of those billions are immune from stupidity within or without. In the absence of statistics, I would venture an educated guess: close to zero per cent if you include minor or infrequent stupidities. As I suggested, it is protean in form, and ubiquitous in habitat. It includes even seemingly dutiful attempts at avoidance, as in those who year in, year out seek out psychotherapy that does them no good. As Karl Kraus remarked: “Psychiatry is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.” Nevertheless, one must admit that, used in moderation, it can be beneficial.           

What makes stupidity especially sinister is that, like certain forms of cancer and other illnesses, it is impossible to diagnose before it is too late. With the passage of time, one may even look back benignly on earlier years’ stupidities. Yet how effective is recognition when it comes to reparation? It neither redeems past stupidity, nor resists the future kind.

In any case, does being wise about some things protect from being stupid about others? When it was finally realized that the earth is not flat and that the sun does not revolve around it, did mankind in other matters become smarter or better? Of course people are no longer burned at the stake as in Galileo’s time, but where is the improvement in so many other respects?

Granted, some stupidities are harmless or even useful. It is good that Erasmus was able to come out with his satire “In Praise of Folly.” But then look at the cost of not one but two atom bombs to end the war against Japan. They did, however, generate one harmless dumbness. The charming British actress, Sara Miles, had such loathing of anything Japanese that only the most desperate effort could prevail upon her to play a scene with a Japanese actor in a movie. “O.K.,” she finally relented, “I will do one scene with you. But I’ll never forgive what you people did to us at Hiroshima.”

It is especially easy to be stupid, or at any rate ignorant, about many things in our era of science and technology. I myself couldn’t explain even why, when I press on a switch and, lo, there is light. My only consolation is that , reciprocally, most scientists or technocrats have not read Proust. And even if they have, what could  they glean from it?

Stupidity, by the way, doesn’t have to be gigantic in order to matter. To be sure it can be enormous, as when Lloyd George and Haig and the rest of them caused innumerable inexcusable casualties in World War One. This was caused by that very arrogance, that stubbornness that causes our much humbler stupidities. Great ones depend on great power. But the principle is essentially the same. Which of us hasn’t through stupidity lost a friend, a lover, a spouse?

You cannot tell me that Andreas Lubitz, the wretch who intentionally ran that German plane into a French Alp, killing also 149 innocent others, wasn’t, beyond depressive and whatnot else, also stupid. Why couldn’t he sensibly kill only himself by some private means? Did the mass murder give him a sense of power? That he was going to make history and reap immortal fame? Or did he stupidly think that dying in such extensive company makes it go down more easily? Or that jumping out of a window was somehow more difficult? And what about the stupidity of the people who thought him fit for piloting?

But for large-scale stupidity is there anything worse than war? Well, yes, a religion that, discounting your stupidity, allows or indeed encourages you to wage it. Aren’t almost all wars, to say nothing of jihads, caused by religion? The excuse that suicide bombers or ISIS misread the teachings of Islam won’t wash: any religion that lends itself to such misreading is clearly to blame. And fanaticism is surely one of the monumental forms of stupidity,

I am writing this as Easter is approaching, and wonder how many of us qualify as dumb bunnies, who not so much hide as lay an egg. And, speaking of eggs, how many greedy fools among us wouldn’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs if such a fowl existed?

There is an old joke about two loonies painting an asylum wall. The one holding the ladder says to the one on top of it, “I am about to move the ladder. Hold on to your brush.” That, only slightly exaggerated, is the archetype of stupidity. The only difference is that from this stupidity only the top loony will be hurt. From other, typical stupidities it is usually more than one person who suffers.

Now there are stupid men who want their women to be submissive, stupid. As Baudelaire said to a woman in a poem, “What matters it to me that you be wise? Be beautiful and be sad.”  That is the view of a sexist or sadist. Stupidity in anyone very much does matter to both possessor and victim. Yet what about the men who lust after the beautiful bimbos on TV talk shows? They look absolutely smashing until they open their mouths. After that if you still wish you could have one of them, it is you who are stupid.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fashion


Pity the poor necktie, hanging on for dear life. Consider that male attire, unlike female, is, unless completely wacko, basically standardized. The lapel may get narrower or wider, the indentation may be higher or lower. But the essential structure remains the same.

Which is where ties come in. It was the one area where a man could exercise his fantasy and good taste, if he had any. There were shapes, patterns and colors to play with, on a spot that attracted immediate attention. The necktie separated the boor from the connoisseur, the gentleman from the barbarian. And now that touchstone is pretty much gone.

Like so much in the field of fashion, it seems to have originated in Paris. Young, upper-class Frenchmen all of a sudden unbuttoned their shirt collars, and made it acceptable for all occasions. It was as startling as when they started refrigerating red wine, an innovation that happily did not catch on.

True, in the summer, a touch of bare neckline means less sweat. But what is a little bit of extra comfort compared to a great loss in elegance? It became hard to tell what kind of a man his clothes were making him. Remarkably, though, neckties are still being fabricated and displayed in large quantities, although leaving one wondering who is buying them.

I myself own hundreds—alas, yes, hundreds—of ties I bought mostly while I was a bachelor making a good living and squandering wage. My fellow critic and tie gatherer, Harold Clurman, commented on however many ties one owned, it was only a few of them one kept wearing. Nowadays, though, nothing makes me sadder than that, on top of the many ties prominently and expectantly parading in my closet, there are at least as many, equally desirable, squashed and entombed in plastic bags, transparent in painful reproof.

Fashions in general are a funny business, as they have evolved over the centuries, or merely seesawed over the years. I wonder, for instance, when and how the so-called play clothes made their debut. They surely weren’t with us all along—or can you imagine Francis Bacon or Walter Raleigh in play clothes? Even incarcerated in the Tower, they don’t seem to fit into T-shirts and dungarees.

To be sure, change seems to be a powerful human need. Just see in the Times pictures of what rages on the runways. It looks positively Martian even on young, beautiful women—not that some models couldn’t double as scarecrows. On older women it looks like a beret on a donkey.

Personally, I recall accompanying a very rich and very chic lady to a number of Paris haute couture salons, where with a little effort she could have picked up some fairly bizarre outfits, but she stuck with the more reasonable, or even sedate. Assuredly, I have never seen anyone, anywhere wearing some of those outré duds, though it may be that I am not getting invited to the right parties.

Now, why exactly this need for change? Because boredom sets in far too easily, far too soon. It is one of humankind’s chief problems—just think what it does to marriages. I have even heard of a marriage where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night, and it worked wonders. But what happens to a wigless marriage? It would seem resignation or divorce.

In the play “The Audience,” Queen Elizabeth II says that she never allowed her televised Christmas greeting to run longer than eight minutes, which she  considered the limit of the human attention span. Granted, eight minutes may be excessive caution, rather like wearing both belt and suspenders, but the principle is sound; as she goes on to say in the play, never outstay your welcome.

Well then, let us admit that other than in marriage, there is no compelling reason to resist change. So in fashion, always presupposing that money is abundant, there is no reason for constraint; you are free to wear something different on the outside as often as you change underwear. In fashion, at any rate, you can play chameleon with impunity.

So, in women’s fashions at any rate, every change from hair ribbons to heels, is readily and regularly available. What really matters is personal style. That, however, is anything but facile. As the French sage Buffon remarked, “Le style c’est l’homme meme,” i.e., style is the man himself, and, a fortiori, the woman herself. But it is not as easy to come by as you might wish. Clothes will contribute to tour style, but are they the last impression, which may more likely be your conversation and your behavior? But they are very probably the first impression of style, and we know how important first impressions are.

Which brings me back to neckties. Suppose I were to advertise selling ties I bought for very considerable sums now for a mere ridiculous fraction of their price. Suppose further that buyers showed up. Wouldn’t you feel a huge pang anytime one of them was purchased? Wouldn’t they, a la Buffon, be part of your humanity, so that it would be like the buyer cutting off one of your fingers or toes?

To make a long story short—sort of like turning a four-in-hand into a bow tie (none of which I ever wore)—is there anything we can do to prevent the extinction of the necktie? The seemingly obvious answer is to keep wearing one. Yet what does that really do except make you look absurdly overdressed? Say, a stuffed shirt? Expose you to being laughed at? That, in what is far from a life-and-death cause, takes a lot of courage. Much easier to undo that top button and go tieless.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Illusion, For or Against


One of our greatest quandaries concerns illusion. Is it treacherous, undesirable, even harmful; or optimistic, consolatory, even life-sustaining? Is it near-synonymous with hope, and thus a good thing, or mendacious, self-deceptive, and thus a bad one? To take one example: is it better to know one has only six months more to live and so take the necessary provisions, or better to remain blissfully ignorant up to the end?

There is thus no one easy answer to the fundamental question about our mortality; or, rather, there are two: for the rationalist intellectual, disbelief in an afterlife is empowering; for the common man, but also some intellectuals, belief in it is the panacea. It is, of course, a dilemma that runs through many lives, and is addressed in the arts of film, theater, and fiction, and philosophy.

In fiction, the prime example is Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote. of which, to my shame, I have only second-hand knowledge. That is because I am a slow reader and have seldom attacked a long book, unless in a financially propitious reviewing assignment. One must, I gather, choose between the romantic fantasies of the Don, and the lower-class hedonism of his squire, Sancho Panza.

Of course, there is folly in combating windmills, but is there no value in perceiving a hefty peasant girl as the noble Dulcinea? Does not the idealizing illusion of a lover or spouse as a Michelangelo David or a Botticelli Venus make life pleasanter?

I suppose the assumption is that whatever suits the individual most is the best attitude toward illusion. Yet one may choose to pursue this troubling question by seeking answers from admired artists. But where to begin?

Let us consider the great author of Les Illusions perdues, who both was and was not a defender of illusion. Balzac was both a Realist and a Romantic, which is to say both a pursuer of hopes that qualify as illusions and a hard-nosed accepter of things as they are.

Take two of his most quoted utterances. On the one hand: “The woman one buys—and that is the less expensive—wants a lot of money; the one that gives herself takes up all of our time.” That is not very pro-illusion. But how about this: “In matters of love there is nothing more persuasive than a courageous stupidity”? There speaks a womanizer who must have entertained some whopping illusions.

Proust--in love at any rate—was an anti-illusionist: “The bonds that unite another person to oneself exist only in our mind. . . . Notwithstanding the illusion by which we like to be cheated, we exist alone.” It is indeed in love that illusion thrives. Thus Nietzsche observed: “Love is the state in which a man sees things most widely different from what they are. The force of illusion reaches its zenith here, as likewise its sweetening and transfiguring power.” That sounds equivocal, as does so much about illusion.

Now let’s skip back to Patrick Henry: “It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope.” That sounds pro-illusion. But here comes the anti: “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth. To know the worst, and to provide for it.”

There are two great plays for which the matter of illusion is central: Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” About the former, I wrote elsewhere (and reprinted it in my book, “Singularities”): “Hjalmar [Ekdal] is wounded by his weakness, his megalomania; Hedwig [his daughter] by her dimming eyesight, the drabness of her present and future, the very fragility of puberty. Yet the illusion of forest, sky, sea—of greatness, freedom, beauty—keeps them going.” And further: “[M]an cannot slay the illusion, the life-lie he lives by: if he tries to, he kills himself.”

In “The Iceman Cometh,” now in a fine revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the drunkards in Harry Hope’s saloon delude themselves with a pipe dream of being able to stop drinking and resume active life. When the charismatic salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman persuades them to give up their pipe dreams and go forth to face reality, it ends up in failure and reversion to those drunken pipe dreams.

So, whether called life-lie or pipe dream, illusion is what keeps these failures from crumbling—pathetic if you will, but not reprehensible. Wising up, and assuming responsibility, means suicide for one of them and murder for another; waiting for death for yet another and alcoholic purblindness for the rest. Even the prostitutes manage to insist that they are not whores, merely tarts.

But careful, friends, with your condescension, let alone contempt; on some level we are all illusionists. In the most secret chamber of our mind, the one closest to unconsciousness, we are, I repeat, all illusionists. There, however well we know that all men are mortal--and, a trifle surprisingly perhaps, all women too—we don’t think that we as well will die. Reading the obituaries in the paper merely confirms us in a sense of fake superiority to those stiffs: What? We too? Impossible!

We can imagine ourselves rich, famous, champions of this or that, lovers of some stunning woman or gorgeous man, but cadavers, worm food, never! The only thing that fully relieves us from fearing and denying death is death itself. Why, even the popularity of movies about ghosts and vampires merely confirms us in our delusion (i.e., an advanced form of illusion) that there is some kind of life after death, be it only as a disembodied scarecrow or a starved bloodsucker. We may not choose the bottle or pills to make us forget; a talent for oblivion sustains all of us in our illusions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Pet Heaven


The question of whether pets go to heaven seems these days to be getting ever greater attention, almost as much as in long ago days the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. Just now (January 17, 2115) the New York Times has dedicated a column by Mark Oppenheimer to it, under the headline “From Seminary to Cemetery, Fascination Persists Over Pets and the Afterlife.”

It is at least as troubling to pet owners as the matter of who designed the Emperor’s new clothes is to the rest of us. My guess is Ralph Lauren, specialist in lost causes, who once informed New York magazine that he could produce several hundred signatures to a demand for my dismissal as drama critic.

To be sure, since there is no heaven even for humans (who admittedly are less deserving of one than, say, Lassie or Mehitabel, if there were such a place), the question is a fairly academical one. There is not even a word for going to it in English—as in the German Himmelfahrt—other than “ascension,” which, to me, rather suggests elevators, and seems un worthy of a pious quadruped. So why not grant afterlife to a deserving pooch or tabby in, say, a comfy black hole, the kind that, according to Professor Stanley Brandes of Berkeley is memorialized on actual tombstones with such epitaphs as “Until We Meet in Heaven” or, for a boxer aptly named Champ, “We Pray That We Will Meet Again.”

Since pet owners are given to conversing with their dogs and cats, how easy it would be for them to say, “I’m reserving a spot for you in Heaven,” to the great relief of either the speaker or hearer, the two- or four-foot animal. This would guarantee  for Spot an endlessly chewable bone, and for Kitty, an inexhaustible saucer of milk.

Quite rightly Oppenheimer observes that “our sense of spiritual kinship is already latent in the bootees and little sweaters we buy our pets”—the cats, bless them, will have none of such paraphernalia—so why should tiny passports to Paradise give pause to booteed paws? I recall Alexander Pope’s couplet for the collar of the Prince of Wales’s pet, ‘I am His Highness’s dog at Kew,/ Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?” If so literate, why couldn’t loyal Fido share the Marine Corps’s motto, Semper Fidelis?

And now good news: the present inclusionist pope has said, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” If so, does that include mosquitoes, cockroaches, tarantulas? Also bedbugs, with which our apartment has been recently infected and took the devil of a time to be gotten rid of. The way those pests performed their molestations; I am sure the male ones earned their 72 virgin females in bedbug heaven.

The Times article further informed us, “’Today there are nearly 600 functioning pet cemeteries in the United States,’” as Amy Defibaugh, a Temple University graduate student, read out from her paper at the recent American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego. Entitled as the paper was—“Toward the Weeping Willow: An Examination of the Dying and Death of Companion Animals”-- it sounds to me like a Ph.D. thesis in the University’s putative Animal Studies Department, although I cannot quite understand the bit about the Weeping Willow: does it mourn the decrease of dogs to bestow their fertilizing urine on its trunk?

So too it was comforting to gather that religion, so useful for the spiritual peace of humans, extends its beneficence to pets. We read in the Times that a cat named Corky lies beneath a gravestone with a Star of David, while  “a dog named Sushi has two Stars of David symmetrically placed at the top of his gravestone, on which there is also Hebrew lettering that reads Shalom.” On the headstone of a cat named Sheebah one reads that she “went to Heaven on Yom Kippur Day.” I am not sure whether these Jewish epitaphs are cited as a mark of philo- or anti-Semitism, but I certainly hope that other religions will duly follow suit.

It strikes me as unfair for a dog no to get his 72 virgin bitches in Paradise, or that the chaster tomcats are not granted 72 virgin pussies.  Most laudable is Nancy Tillman’s book, “The Heaven of Animals,” in which she assured grieving pet owners that “when dogs go to heaven, they’re welcomed by name (surely Rover and Bowser are as good as Gabriel and Raphael), and angels know every dog’s favorite games.” I can just hear an encouraging “How about some fetch, Fido?” in a melodious, angelic voice, which should make any dog feel right at home. Wings, by the way, if issued to dogs, should make fetching ever so much easier.

Ms. Tillman, a nondenominational Christian in Portland, Oregon, comments about her dog’s and cat’s rapt, faraway gazes, “What a lovely thought if they see heaven,” rather than, I suppose, the next helping of Purina. Even more encouraging is Cynthia Rylant, author of the egalitarian “Dog Heaven” and “Cat Heaven” lest she be accused of partiality. In the former, she avers that “God has a sense of humor, so He makes His biscuits in funny shapes for his dogs. There are kitty-cat biscuits and squirrel biscuits.” Gratifyingly, they must feel that they are symbolically consuming their traditional victims, cats and squirrels.

The best news that the quizzically named grad student, Ms. Defibaugh, conveys to us in her paper, that “many funeral homes have extended their services to companion animals for memorials and religious services” and that “Some human cemeteries are now allowing companion animal burial.”  I like her term “companion animal” for pets; it somehow makes it sound as if those canines and felines had freely adopted their bipeds as partners. And perhaps in a way they have. But what about those Weeping Willows?