Saturday, October 11, 2014


Having been during my long life a teacher of Humanities and critic of most of the arts, it would be a reasonable assumption that as their reviewer, as well as an occasionally published poet, I might have known a number of famous people.

And so I did, meeting some in passing, and even befriending a few. Unfortunately, I never kept a diary, and so never wrote up any conversations or other recollections. By now I don’t even have my former good memory, and what remnant of it I have is quirky and tends to summon up a trivial detail or two, but few if any essentials.Nevertheless, here goes.

Surely the most celebrated person I ever met was Jose Luis Borges, with whom and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, I had lunch at the Terrace Restaurant near Columbia University. The translator was present not because Borges had the least trouble with English, but because by that time he was very nearly blind. The great Argentine—I remember his pointing out that the proper adjective was Argentine and not Argentinian--was an amazing lunch companion.

I also remember his speaking the most beautiful English, without a trace of a Spanish accent, in a gentle, melodious voice. This writer of some rather wild things was civilized in the utmost degree and said some memorable things I have managed to forget. One of our subjects was the Pre-Raphaelites, for whom he had a great affection.

I don’t recall how it came about, but I arranged--on a subsequent visit of his to New York, accompanied by the lady who was his sighted guide--to have them stay with a woman fried of mine at her large Park Avenue apartment and so be spared hotel costs. They stayed for a couple of nights, but I, stupidly, failed to make renewed contact with Borges, easy as it would have been.

There was also Yves Bonnefoy, on the way of becoming France’s leading poet, though at that time not yet quite there. He had something to do with Harvard, where I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature. His friend Alain Bosquet—poet, novelist and critic, but chiefly remembered as translator--was teaching at Brandeis.The three of us had some good times together. I was working on my doctorate, and Bonnefoy asked to see the some of my Ph. D. thesis on the prose poem as art form, on which I was currently working, the chapter being the one on Rimbaud.

I remember only his disapproving of my contention that Rimbaud went in for deliberate ambiguity. Bonnefoy insisted that ambiguity did not come into French poetry until Valery. He may have been right. I did not see him again till many years later, by which time he was at the height of his fame and guest lecturing at Hunter College. After one of his public lectures, I accosted him, but he barely recalled me, was extremely cold, and showed no interest in any sort of rapport.

In my graduate student days, I had a girlfriend named Joan, a Bennington graduate living with her parents in Newton, and not doing much of anything. At Bennington, she was somehow involved with the visiting poet Pierre Emmanuel, whom I met through her. All I remember of him, alas, is his preference for women with powerful rather than slender legs, like the ones in Maillol’s statues, a taste I did not, and still do not, share.

Joan definitely did have an affair with the distinguished German poet and essayist Hans Egon Holthusen, who was lots of fun, and later ran the Goethe House in New York, where I attended numerous events. Before that, however, Joan came to live in New York, where she had a couple of jobs, including one at Esquire, all of which she promptly lost. Although I moved in with her, her heart was really with Holthusen, the heroine of whose only novel, “Das Schiff,” she was. The poet was teaching in Chicago or somewhere else, but expecting him to come stay with her, she kicked me out. By the time he did come to New York, she had committed suicide.

What do I really remember of Holthusen? Only two trivial things. He liked pointy shoes, which he rebuked me for not going in for. Also his warning me not to call certain people in print idiots, which is allegedly actionable, but assholes, which definitely is not.

In later life, Louis MacNeice has become one of my favorite poets. I met him much too early after a reading he gave at Harvard, and I was deputized to escort him from the Yard, where he read, to Eliot House, where he was to stay. I remember our walk: he was taciturn and I was shy; very little was spoken. What a chance missed!

Another time, walking on Massachusetts Avenue with one of my advisers, the charming Renato Poggioli, we ran into one of my idols, Edmund Wilson. The two men started a conversation, but Poggioli never introduced me, and I stood by mute and frustrated. Some years later, friends of mine at a late night joint got to talk to Wilson, who was trying to learn Hungarian. They mentioned me as a friend who knew the language. It seems that Wilson envied me without my being able to benefit from it.

I was one of three section men in a lecture course on Yeats, Rimbaud and Rilke taught by Archibald MacLeish. In my section was Adrienne Rich, who had just been chosen a Yale Younger Poet. She complained that the course was too elementary; could I get MacLeish to make it more advanced? Needless to say, that wasn’t up to me, and Rich haughtily dropped the course.

In my section, however, remained future novelists Rona Jaffe and Harold Brodky. Jaffe, a B minus student, would later insist that she had not been my student but my fellow instructor. Brodky was a real nuisance, who never heeded assignments and wrote instead vaporous surreal fantasies. I spent a couple of hours with him on the steps to Widener Library, trying to make him understand and comply. In vain, as he, having become a famous but impossibly abstruse writer, would smilingly relate to one and all.

A high point of my not entirely unclouded relationship with MacLeish was the occasion when he had me before the entire class reading some of Rilke’s poems, so that they would hear how they sounded in German. I had invited to that class Christine Bosshard, a very beautiful Radcliffe girl, who was duly impressed, but not enough so, alas, for any intimacies. The next day, Archie summoned me to his office. I wondered what I had done wrong this time, but all he wanted was to know more about the gorgeous Cliffie who had been my guest.

As an undergraduate, I also had a meeting with W.H. Auden, to whom I showed one of my amateurish poems. It was in a cafeteria, and he was very friendly and nice about it, but averred, as it was a winter poem, that it should avoid metaphors involving ants, because there were no ants in the snow. A good many years later, I and a girlfriend were invited to a dinner chez Auden and Chester Kallman.

A fellow guest was Edward Albee, about whom I recall only his presence. But I do remember Auden, then a Christian proselyte, arguing that Divine Providence wisely harvested people only when they had fulfilled their earthly mission. Thus, if Mozart or Schubert died young, it was because he had accomplished all he had to do. I remember protesting that surely Georg Buechner’s death at 23 was premature for such a genius. The other thing I remember is the bathtub that held the evening’s liquor. It had a black ring around it a quarter way down. I am not sure whether or not that made me a teetotaler for the evening. The reason I had been invited was my being an associate editor of the Mid-Century Book Society, whose editors were Auden, Barzun and Trilling. About this I have written elsewhere.

The one poet with whom I had a close friendship was James Dickey. It began when he, as a subscriber of that book club, had some complaint, and I was in charge of answering complaints. I sent him our apologies, and commented on how much I prized his then still uncelebrated poetry. This pleased him, and he looked me up on his next visit to New York.

It was a lasting friendship, and it survived such things as my being unimpressed by his otherwise much admired novel, “Deliverance,” and my not being able to provide liquor on one of his later visits—just as well, considering his behavior when drunk. After his death, when I briefly but unsuccessfully dated his smart and beautiful but messed-up daughter, Bronwyn, she told me that I had been his best friend in New York.

My happiest memory of Jim is written up in his journal and essay volume, “Sorties.” The page begins, “I have seldom spent such a good afternoon of human time as I had a few years ago with John Simon in New York. . . . We sat around and talked about writing, and about poets. . . . He said, ‘Do you know whom I really like?’ I said I hadn’t any idea, thinking it would be some new French poet I hadn’t heard of. Not att all. He pulled out . . . ‘The Collected Poems of Andrew Young,’ a rather mild English ecclesiastical poet, and read to me for two or three hours. I sat there with my mouth open.” And it goes on in that vein. The time, of course, is an exaggeration of what must have been more like twenty or thirty minutes—but call it poetic license. His death was a terrible shock; he seemed gifted and robust enough to live forever.

My relations with another, similarly robust, poet were less felicitous. That was Theodore Roethke. It was during my relatively brief stint teaching at the University of Washington, where Roethke, a professor, was considered the crown jewel—not to say God. In a casual conversation with someone, I referred to Roethke as a good minor poet. This got back to him, and apparently enraged him, as it certainly did the multitude of his local worshipers.

But there were times when craziness overpowered him and he had to be hospitalized, having become abjectly self-doubting. At such a time he wrote to me upon reading a poem of mine: “. . .  I came across your villanelle in ‘The Paris Review.’ If you will permit me to say so,--I thought it a poem of genuine distinction: some fresh (for me, anyway) effect, in that difficult form. I read the piece with envy. I trust you will not take this note amiss.” Hardly.



I have mentioned some of the Linky story before, but here follows the final, complete, definitive account. With it told, I can put the whole matter behind me and move on.

As I was reading for review the third volume of “The Samuel Beckett Letters,” I came across an interesting footnote. Beckett was in the gallant habit of ending his letters with a greeting to the recipient’s partner or spouse. In a letter to his American publisher, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, he sent a greeting to Linc. Barney informed him, a dubious speller at best, that the correct spelling should end in a K, not a C. So, in a later letter, Sam concluded with an enormous K.

Of special interest to me was the footnote that Mary Lincoln Bonnell, for many years but no longer Rosset’s girlfriend, had died in 2013. This moved me. Linky with a K, as I had known her, had been one of my youthful loves. Over the years, I occasionally wistfully recalled her. Here is what it was all about.

While still at Harvard’s Graduate School, I frequented a long since gone joint named St.Clair’s, featuring excellent chocolate ice cream sodas. One evening, I noticed in a booth across from me, a gaggle of Cliffies (i.e., Radcliffe students) laughingly surrounding a stunning blonde. She caught my eye but also something deeper: I had to get to know her!

I forget exactly how—some phone calls were involved—I tracked down Linky Bonnell. Nor do I remember exactly how I got her to go out with me, but I suppose my being a teaching fellow impressed her. Anyway, we started dating.

Linky must have been the most beautiful Cliffie of that era. As I try to visualize her so many years later, I would have been helped by photgraphs. Frustratingly, only one tiny snapshot survives, the others somehow got lost, possibly destroyed by a jealous subsequent inamorata.

The picture that does remain is a 35-millimeter print I pasted into a volume of poems by my beloved Stephane Mallarme, above a sonnet beginning “A la nue accablante tu,” which so infuriated Tolstoy.

Linky had shoulder-length, gently undulant blond hair, blue eyes and exquisite features. A perfect figure, lovely arms and flawless legs. I never saw her feet, but can vouch for the pleasing size of her shoes. She also had a charming voice and an infectious laugh. I had taken her to the banks of the Charles for a photo shoot. In the picture, she stands gracefully on a piece of wood jutting into the river, her left arm extended to hold on to a tree trunk, the right one dangling loose. She is wearing a black or navy dress, with a white neckline and hem. The mid-calf skirt unfortunately hides too much leg. In the background, there is a solitary skiff.

I went off to Paris on a Fulbright, and corresponded with Linky. She answered two letters in a charmingly girlish handwriting and with chatty content. But this stopped. I guessed that she had found another chap of interest.

Then, however, in the spring, came a letter from Linky. She would be in Paris on such and such a day, and would I please meet her at the Invalides, the final stop of the bus from Orly airport. She would be returning from Italy, where, a talented sculptress, she had gone for lessons from the distinguished classicist Arturo Martini (not to be confused with the modernist Marino Marini), and would spend a few days with me.

Duly, I showed up, and there she was in all her radiance. Miracle of miracles, she had rented a room, in all that great Paris, only a block or two from mine in the sixteenth Arrondissement. But now came the contretemps.

Like other American girls of the period, she had remained chaste in the States, but was ready for sex abroad, which is where I was to come in. Alas, I had fallen for and had an affair with June Morris, an American dancer with one of the two Ballets Russes. The company had been on tour, and she once again fell for a gay premier danseur. (It used to be Johnny Kriza, and was now John Gilpin.) As a result, she had been avoiding my frantic long distance phone calls. This time, after considerable effort, I tracked her down having lunch with colleagues at Harry’s Bar and joined her there.

Now, I had two tickets to the Opera that evening for the rarely seen Berlioz “La Damnation de Faust.” As June was dancing that evening, I spent time with her during the day, but invited Linky for the evening. She came, but wept all through the performance: I had let her down. During intermission, she sat on the edge of a fountain, adding to the waterworks. I stood by, helpless. In the morning, she was gone, without so much as a good bye.

I next saw Linky much later in New York, where I took her to one of the performances by the guesting Old Vic, with such greats as Olivier, Richardson, and Vivien Leigh. She wasn’t especially impressed or friendly. When I took her home, she not only didn’t invite me in, she also made cruel fun of everything I said. On a very last occasion, on a street in Cambridge, she crossed to the other side to avoid me.

We now skip forward some years, and I learn that she is the girlfriend of Barney Rosset, and that, on his money, they were both seeing the same shrink for joint sessions, something disapproved of in those days. And nothing further.

Fast forward a few years more, and my wife and I are invited to a big dinner event chez the painter Larry Rivers. At the preceding cocktail party, I get to talk to Rosset and ask about Linky, with whom he had by then split. He tells me she is very well and cheerfully sculpting away.

Now on to a recent year, with me leafing through the Manhattan phone book. I come across Mary Lincoln Bonnell. Should I call her, I wonder? What’s the point, I conclude, and don’t. And now that footnote in the Beckett letters: Deceased, 2013.
Requiescat in pace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Names matter. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but if it were called buzzfunk we might think twice before sticking our nose into it, and all that sweetness would go to waste. I doubt whether I could love a woman named Mildred, no matter how appealing otherwise.

The name problem obtains in art as much as in life. The main reason a fine musical can get away with being called “Matilda” is that she is a tiny tot and a genius besides. A grown-up Matilda could only go waltzing. But I worry about the lovely Spanish tennis player Garbine Muguruza, who is not doing as well as I would wish. She suffers from a double whammy. Mu suggests a cow, guru a dubious Indian pundit whom one should not get involved with. As for Garbine, its odor of garbage really hurts. Still, she is one of tennis’s three graces, along with Ana Ivanovic and Julia Goerges.

And apropos tennis, isn’t it auspicious that Djokovic anagrammatizes into “Oh, which joke?” because whatever joke it is, it’s better than humorlessness, of which Novak can definitely not be accused. As for “no vac”; in tennis, as long as you can absorb enemy balls with your racket, no need for a vacuum cleaner.

But these are names where the meaning may affect us; what, however, about sound? Grgich Vineyard wines had to be as good as they are for their name not to be off-putting. As a title, Emma can just about get away with it, thanks to Jane Austen’s skill; Jane Eyre” would appeal even if Charlotte Bronte were less talented. “Roderick Random” scores with those ruggedly alliterative Rs, but “Martin Chuzzlewit” has kept me away nomenclaturally.

Dickens, to be sure, is a virtuoso namer. I used to have a Dickens dictionary, which has since somehow vanished, much to my chagrin. Just reading Dickens titles can be a pleasure; who wouldn’t enjoy an autumnal field the color of copper?

Disturbingly, there are fashions in names. When one of them gets to be very popular, it loses some of its charm. Thus Alexandra and its shorter version, Alex (for women), have become a bit too frequent. The same goes in spades for the pullulating variants of Christine—you know, all those Kristens, Kristins, Kirstens and the rest, which inspired a splendid New Yorker cartoon. The same goes for the male Christopher, which not even an initial K can quite redeem.

Of course, there are the obvious ones, like Peter, Paul, Michael and John. They somehow escape stigma because they are the aural equivalents of comfortable old slippers—you are hardly aware of them. But David was a seeming fashion not long ago, and now Jason certainly is. Luckily fashions pass.

Some names are too recherché. Take Colin and Reginald (OK in England) or Julian, almost. But what are we to make of a young black I spotted on TV called Aristotle Jones? Does the latter mitigate the former, or the former overshadow the latter? Or take a young black woman, also on TV, whose Christian name is Camry? Slightly better than Automobile. I suppose. Aristotle, to be sure, can be safely paired with Onassis; it suggests millions put to thoughtful use.

No fashion has been stronger than, a while back in France, Thierry. If you stayed for the final credits of a French movie, Thierrys followed one another like ducklings in a row. (Thierry does sound nice, but not in excess.) What saves in French the ever-popular Jean is that it gets wedded in a hymen, with or without hyphen, to Jacques, Claude, Luc, Paul, Pierre or what have you, and so escapes monotony.

Clever authors have tended to have a way with names, particularly in titles. So Daniel Deronda is far better than its appended novel. Moby-Dick is quite amusing, which cannot be said for the dreary, overlong novel, however much you inflict it on unsuspecting students. Moll Flanders rolls delectably off the tongue, and nothing beats Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Even what may be the most ludicrous novel ever written, by one Mrs. Amanda M’Kittrick Ros, has an affecting title “Irene Iddesley.” But it cannot salvage such writing as, “’Mighty Heavens!’ exclaimed Sir Hugh Dunfern, are you the vagrant who ruined the very existence of him whom you now profess to have loved? You, the wretch of wicked and willful treachery, and formerly the wife of him before whose very bones you falsely kneel?” and so on and on, giving, among other things, a bad name to alliteration.

Oscar Wilde, for instance, was expert with names. Who wouldn’t want to investigate the picture of someone called Dorian Gray? How creatively Wilde exploited the map of England with euphonious names such as Worthing, Windermere, Chiltern and the rest he appropriated. And then there is Shakespeare.

What an inspired namer! I recommend the book Shakespeare’s Names by Laurie Maguire, published by Oxford. But even without reference to Maguire, could there be anything more apt than Dogberry, Bottom, Starveling, Peaseblossom, Shallow, Pistol, Prospero or Miranda, Latin for worthy of admiration?

Or take something like Falstaff, which comprises both fall and false, and perhaps, ironically, staff, as someone not to lean on. There is the Latin adage “nomen est omen,” and nothing could be more of a signpost than so many of these names. Let me quote from Laurie Maguire’s above-mentioned book, a section labeled “Onomastic Legibility.”

“We no longer assign names with the expectation that the name’s origin will reflect or influence the bearer: Kirk Douglas need not be a Scotsman who lives near a church (‘kirk’) and a dark blue river (Gaelic ‘douglas’). None the less, the popularity of book titles such as Names to Give to Your Baby complete with lists of etymologies, biblical and literary precedents , suggests a degree of residual if temporary onomancy, and parents’ acknowledgment that they chose a name because they liked its associations . . . is simply a variant of etymology (the name still has an origin).”

I cannot help wondering about the names of the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, and his wife, Patience. How does the man distinguish between someone’s wishing him well or merely addressing him? Or between reprimanding his spouse or merely addressing her? Surely Europeans must have problems with the wearers of such names.

Then again, in the Times of August 17, 2014, we read about the wedding of Monica Singh and Adam Kleinman. No one will mistake the bride’s name for a command, or the groom’s for being a little guy. But the person officiating was one Freedom Freedom, a Sikh priest, which sounds like a sick joke. Do such names have a prophetic quality? Does President Jonathan have more good luck than the rest of us? Does the Reverend Freedom Freedom enjoy greater liberties than most other humans? Indeed twice as many?

This is not meant as ridicule, only as puzzlement. Surely the significance of names clings to the bearer. Take the French word lolo. An earlier dictionary defines it as “(Child’s word.) Milk.” A newer dictionary offers “1) Fam[iliar], milk. 2) Boob.” The meaning seems to have progressed from the substance to the source. But I have heard perfectly educated persons attribute lolo by false etymology to a derivative of the twin endowment of the beautiful and bosomy Italian actress, Gina Lollobrigida. (The twin l’s in Lollo all the more apt.) Or why else did the meaning of lolo, even with a single L, extend to tits?

Names, I repeat, matter. Brian Friel’s superb play, “Translations,” takes place in the 1830s, when the British Army Engineer Corps carried out an ordnance survey of Ireland (I quote Seumas Deane) “mapping and renaming the whole country to accord with its recent integration into the United Kingdom.” So place names were renamed to suit English versus Irish ears. Granted, we deal here with place names, but are personal names such a different matter? Consider the following.

Not so long ago in American film and theater, Jewish names had to be transmuted into Aryan ones. So Israel Baline became Irving Berlin; Hyman Atluck, Harold Arlen; Burton Levy, Burton Lane; Jerrold Rosenberg, Jerry Ross; Jules Stein, Jule Styne.
So much for composers. Likewise choreographers: Jerome Rabinowitz into Jerry Robbins; Milton Greenwald into Michael Kidd. And especially actors: Jacob Julius Garfinkle into John Garfield; Harold Lipshitz into Hal Linden; Joel David Katz into Joel Grey, and so on.

It wasn’t always a matter of de-Semitizing. Foreign-sounding names were turned into something more Anglo. Thus Vladimir Dukelsky became Vernon Duke, and Salvatore Anthony Guaragna turned into Harry Warren. And sometimes it was a case of mere greater euphony. So the lovely Donna Mae Tjaden became Janis Paige, and Rosita Dolores Alverio turned into Rita Moreno.
Since the coming of political correctness and ethnic pride, nowadays the more a name suggests a minority, the better. To hell with euphony and hello outlandishness. This new tolerance is all to the good. But there remains the fact of non-American and non-European names striking us as funny.

Chinese names amuse us, rightly or wrongly, by their very brevity. Thus the veteran Chinese star of women’s tennis, Li Na. We may or may not know that in China last names come first, and are flummoxed about whether to call her Ms. Li or Ms. Na. The confusion has gone so far that she is always Li Na, all bases covered, and even her very mother has taken to calling her LI Na.

Conversely Indian names amuse, or at least bemuse, us with their polysyllabicity. In a recent Times article I came across Babloo Loitongbam and Gaikhangam Gangmei. I leave it to you to hunt down the possible English associations. Bad as ridicule may be, it is better than murder, as practiced, for instance, by extreme Islam.

And, when you come down to it, is Lollobrigida any less funny than Loitongbam? It would have been even funnier had the actress kept her birth name, Luigina, which she reduced, despite loss of alliteration, to the sexier Gina. I myself am, as it were, following the example of Bernard Shaw, who dropped the initial George, by dropping as much as possible my redundant middle name, Ivan. Also, some would say, the Terrible.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


One of the worst things a person can be is stupid. Stupidity is one of the greatest conceivable evils. Yet it isn’t a sin at all. It is something no-one, with the exception of  novelist Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, deliberately chooses to be. What is inflicted on you at birth, which you couldn’t help, did nothing to provoke, can hardly qualify as sin. And yet. . . .

Right next to it, as far as I’m concerned, is obesity—right up there with thievery, mendacity, cruelty to people and animals, rudeness and dirtiness. It may even head the list, along with stupidity.

Yet it too may (repeat: may) be something glandular that you cannot help. Of course stigmatizing it predicates belief in the beauty and goodness of its opposite, slenderness. I confess that I, as a lover of women—more specifically beautiful ones—consider slimness a sine qua non. This has to do with obesity being tantamount to ugliness. And surely such overweight is ugly.

The obese person is unsightly, and therefore shunned and unhappy. Consider the attention devoted by the ABC network to tracing missing children. Most of them are girls, which in itself is noteworthy, and almost all of them are overweight. One recently was five feet tall and weighed 200 pounds.

We cannot dispute the fact that for the vast majority of people the standard of beauty is set by Hollywood. Female stars have to be slender. I recall one movie magazine long ago naming the two most beautiful actresses: Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan. They were both 5’6” and both weighed 118 pounds. I agreed that they were, each in her own way, true beauties. There may be something quaint about that 118, definitely not a rounded (in both senses) figure (again in both senses). But it surely worked for both those alluring actresses.

We may well ask what is so beautiful about slimness? There have been ages and societies whose standard of feminine beauty was much more ample. Never mind the Hottentot Venus or the paintings of Rubens and, worse yet, Botero; but think of our own Gibson girls, ideals not so long ago.

The beauty of slimness has something to do with proportions, symmetry, pleasing ratios, which remain steady even if details change. Already 5’6” may seem a bit ordinary nowadays, perhaps even short; we tend to admire a woman like the tennis star Maria Sharapova, who at 6’2” might not so very long ago been considered a giantess and not particularly desirable. But she is, today, a beauty.

Too much height in a woman, however, is a bit intimidating, especially to men who are shorter than that. But too little height is considered childish, cute, like kittens, puppies, or six-year-old girls. Only one thing definitely scorned in our time is obesity.

I don’t recall reading anywhere the weight of Angelina Jolie, widely held to be one of our greatest beauties, with or without breasts. But one thing she certainly, even remotely, is not: she is anything but obese. Now if you wonder why I concentrate on a particular kind of beauty, namely feminine, it is for the same reason that painters through the ages painted beautiful, often nude, women as the high point of beauty.

I realize that this is foolishly derided by many as sexist; but others will agree that it is a good place to look for beauty. To be sure, one hears about fatty lovers (or should it be one word, fattylovers?), but they are relatively rare. The rest of us value delicacy even in a vase and champagne glass and, particularly, flower; then why not in a woman? I don’t mean undernourishment, frangibility, flimsiness; but I do mean gracefulness, the sort of thing we get in a ballerina.

Something there is that loves slenderness. Think of the women of, say, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Modigliani, and so many other artists, almost all gazelles. And the same in sculpture: there is a Venus de Milo, but a Venus de Gaston Lachaise is inconceivable.

Reflect now on the causes of obesity. It is very frequent, for example, in black women? Why? Because many of them are poor. If you can’t afford other good things, there is one that you must: food. But food isn’t just for survival; it is also for pleasure. And what food is cheapest? Junk food, which is notoriously fattening. Now what makes poverty a bit more bearable?  Munching away on junk food. Consequence? Obesity.

Obesity, moreover, is comic. The comic is not beautiful. How many comediennes have been slender? A few; but many more have been—are--to put it politely, big. And funny is not sexy either, which is first cousin to beautiful. But funny can actually be obese, which is the reverse of beautiful. So obesity ends up being the opposite of beautiful, i.e., ugly.

Take the word porcine, which applied to a human is hugely insulting. Why? Because pigs are fat. They are, however, far from stupid, and, contrary to popular belief, would as soon not wallow in mud. But swinish, or piglike, i.e., obese, is what an unappealing person is deprecatingly called. Not equine, canine or feline. Porcine, i.e., ugly.

Americans rate very high on the obesity scale. But why are so many Americans flagrantly obese? Can you ride a bus without spotting at least one such? Or, more likely, several. This is because, compared to those in the rest of the world,
America’s poor are less indigent. At any rate, they can afford more candy and other fattening junk food. And don’t forget the proliferation and persuasiveness of American advertising plugging dubious comestibles. Result? Obesity.

Bear in mind the derivation and definition of the word obesity. In Britain, the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “obese” was first recorded in 1651; “obesity,” in 1612. They come from the Latin, perhaps via French, the adjective meaning, according to the OED, very fat or fleshy, or exceedingly corpulent; the noun, excessive fatness or corpulence. Note the signified more than mere fatness. Conversely, as rich a language as German, which of course has words for fat and thick, has no word for obese. This surely does not mean that Germans are less obese than Brits, but it does mean that the Anglo-Saxon, and hence also American, sensibility is more offended by vast overweight than that of some other nations. And rightly so.

We hate a walking tub of lard more than some other nationals do. We could be satisfied with fat and thick, with plump and pudgy, chubby and overweight, but no; we also want, for the greatest repulsiveness, the greatest shock, obese. Or is it that we have more fatties, greater unappetizingness (or bigger appetites) than other peoples? “Obese” is a word that exudes stricter disapproval, elicits stronger repulsion than any of those other synonyms or near-synonyms.

It does not help that we now know how unhealthful such superfatness is. Even the similarity in sound to the word “obscene” should give warning. Or the rhyming with “grease.” Or the negativity of most words beginning in “ob”: obscure, obscurantist, obstacle, objectionable, obsolete, obnoxious, obstructionist, perhaps even obligatory, which is at best indeterminate: some obligations are worthy, many restrictive and tedious. An irredeemably damning word then for an irredeemably damnable phenomenon.

Observe also how unwilling “obese” is to join up with something remotely positive as “fat” and “thick” can do, as in “fat and sassy” and “thickskinned,” which in today’s brutal world stands for something rather handy. Obese, however, stands alone and is bad business however you slice it, and, given its adiposity, is very appropriate for slicing.



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Whither the Arts?

Repeatedly I have written and spoken about exhaustion in the arts. Think how easy it was for the possibly pseudonymous Longus to write the immortal pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe in the third or fourth century, when there was relatively little competition in fiction writing. Think also of how easy it was for the early composers to write not especially original music at a time when originality was not much called for. In the fine arts, even before representation yielded to abstraction, it has been easier to be original all along, what with the variety of faces, landscapes and possible still lifes. Yet even there a certain sense of déjà vu is now making things more difficult.

For artists with words—poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists—it is, despite seemingly infinite possibilities, getting harder and harder to be original, given the prevailing glut. Forays into the absurd have become more and more frequent, what with true newness ever more difficult to achieve. As for dance, the beauty of the human body in motion guarantees a putative inexhaustibility, yet even so there is no superabundance nowadays of outstanding choreographers.

Where mass production is by way of becoming deleterious is in the cinema, where it would appear that the great innovators have been dying out, and the newcomers are having the devil of a time trying not to look like the epigones they are. And there is a big increase in remakes, mostly inferior to the makes.

But where the desperate quest to be new is most pronounced, or most demented, is in the hard-to-classify realms of conceptual and body art, in which the frantic pursuit of elusive novelty has wreaked the greatest havoc. Here let us accost one of the major practitioners of the typical quest for originality—or just difference— yielding the most pitiful examples.  I name that salient practitioner of non-art posturing as art: Marina Abramovic.

A couple of years ago her so-called retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was entitled “The Artist Is Present.” It consisted of having persons sit in a chair opposite her and gazing at her admiringly. And would you believe it? People stood in line for the privilege of sitting and staring at her. So what could she do now to top this? Well, now she has London’s Serpentine Gallery showing nothing except the colored empty panels of its walls. It is called “512 Hours” after the total time she will spend there doing nothing. And folks have stood in line to see Abramovic’s nothing, presumably superior to the nothing of lesser mortals.

It is written up in an article of the June 14 New York Times, which can be read as either laudatory or ironic, or possibly neither. It goes into some detail about how Marina is spending the 512 hours of the duration of this exhibition. She says, “There is just me and the public. It is insane what I try to do.” Note that here “insane” is a term of praise.

There is no limit to Abramovic’s superior insanity. She is “widely known in the art world,” the Times states, “as a pioneer in her field who had not just created performances of physical intensity—carving a star into her stomach with a razor, lying on a block of ice for hours, screaming until her voice gave out—but had also re-enacted grueling performance pieces by other artists.” For, alas, she is not alone in her art. “A number of Americans and curators have written . . . accusing Ms. Abramovic and the gallery of failing to acknowledge the work of Mary Ellen Carroll, a New York based conceptual artist. Ms. Carroll said in an email that she had been working on a project called ‘Nothing’ since 1984, describing it as ‘an engagement with the public’ without documentation.” Thirty years of working on creating nothing is indeed impressive.

One of the gallery’s co-curators with Julia Taylor Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, told the Times in a telephone interview that “Ms. Carroll was one of numerous artists before Ms. Abramovic who had explored the relationship between art and nothingness.” And Abramovic herself confirms that “now we are getting letters every day from people who did nothing first.” Truly a situation worthy of the pen of Jonathan Swift or Lewis Carroll (no relation to Mary Ellen).

But did they receive the same sort of recognition as the one for “512 Hours”? No. Lady Gaga did not come to them for instruction, and Time magazine did not put them on this year’s list of the 100 most influential people. I have no doubt that at this very moment doctoral theses are being written on the art of nothing. Indeed, Marina informs us, “relishing her fame,” that her public “are super young, and I become for them some kind of example of things they want to know.” And we read that on a given Wednesday attendance at “52 Hours” consisted of hundreds of knowledge seekers, and not only young ones, but that on the following Thursday there was no such crowd. We are not told what happened on Friday.

“There is an enormous need for young people to have contact with the artist,” Ms. A. avers. And how does that play out at the Serpentine Galleries? For example, Ms. A. hands a small mirror to a visitor and tells her to walk backward, using the mirror as a guide. “Reality is behind you,” she whispers.

This was, presumably, a young contact needer. But how about older ones? “You look suspicious,” Ms. A. said to an older couple. They looked “well, suspicious, as around them people contemplated those panels in bright primary colors [not painted by Ms. A.]  or lay on he floor eyes closed.  Ms. A. took the couple by the hand, “gently asked them to close their eyes, and led them away walking with a slow measured tread.” She explains: “The public are my material, and I am theirs. “ To this end, our material girl opens the gallery with her private key at 6 A.M. and presumably tarries there till closing time.

Now you may fear that this art is too ephemeral, too conditioned on the artist’s living presence. Not to worry. In Hudson, New York, there is a Marina Abramovic Institute, a center for long-durational work, that “she hopes will bring together figures from the worlds or art, science and spirituality.” I wonder who these figures might be? For art, we already have Lady Gaga—or is she there for spirituality?—but who might attend from the world of science? Scientologists, perhaps; I can’t see Mary Ellen Carroll making the pilgrimage.

So there you have it. “A Gallery Filled with Emptiness,” as one Times headline has it. The follow-up one, more explicitly, reads “Now She Fills Her Gallery With Emptiness.” But, of course, she won’t stop there. There are still many heads to be filled with emptiness, albeit not so the fillers’ pockets. It is all highly symptomatic. And this, and similar manifestations, are where modern art has progressed to. How much really separates those primary-colored gallery panels from the masterworks of Mark Rothko and his likes, say Yves Klein, the Monochrome?

Simultaneously in music, we get John Cage’s measured silence and the not much better Minimalists. In literature, where it all began, we had Gertrude Stein, the surrealists and Oulipo. The floodgates were open to a French writer who wrote a whole book with the letter E removed from his typewriter. But why stop at one letter? How about a book with no letters at all? 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Academic Matters

Students have become arrogant of late. I noticed that during my last years of professorship, and I find it confirmed by what I hear and read these days. When I say that in my days we were not like that, I am not being a laudator temporis acti—a bit of Latin that shouldn’t stump anyone, except perhaps some of today’s students.

The problem has nothing to do with human nature, only with the temper of the times. My student days were before political correctness, before affirmative action, before not being allowed to call someone stupid, least of all if he or she actually was. It was certainly before a teacher was not supposed (allowed?) to flunk anyone. The whole purpose of education has changed: then it was about learning; now it is about getting a degree as a means to a better job and more money.

To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, whereas I was a teacher at much less distinguished schools, although for all I know, even Harvard may no longer be Harvard. Still, the country was respectful of the kind of knowledge a decent liberal arts program bestowed on you. This is no longer the case. On the day I write this (May 19), I was watching Jeopardy! with one young woman a multiple six-figure winner, and two other contestants who too were on the ball.                                                                    

As usual, they did well enough in various areas, but were unimpressive in literature. They did not know what Conrad novel featured a Jim whom respectful natives deemed a lord. Nor did they know the name of the evil hypnotist who enslaved a lovely, innocent young woman. In my day, even people who had not read Trilby knew what was meant by a Svengali.

But back to current students. In today’s Times, an article appears under the headline “Warning: The Literary Canon Could make Students Squirm.” (This, by the way, was not the case of a subliterate headline, such as we got from the Times of May 10, which began: “Obama, Aggravated by Gridlock” etc.) Now we got responsible reportage about what was happening on a good many campuses, concentrating on the University of California, Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, but with references also to Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools where there were student requests for what are known as trigger warnings.

The term, like other unfortunate things, originated on the Internet, specifically on feminist blogs and subsequent forums. But I am concerned with its academic life and what it tells us about student demands and certain professors’ and administrators’ taking them seriously, in some cases even deferring to them.

What it comes down to is the idea that students in certain literature and film courses should be forewarned  about disturbing elements that could upset the poor darlings if they were unprepared for them. Which means, in effect, that the element of surprise and wonder should be denied some great works of literature and cinema, lest they cause moments of discomfiture.

Who are these students anyway? Are they four-year-olds who need to be warned by their nannies about the dangers of crossing a street? Must they, as it were, be taken by the hand and led to safety? “Careful about oncoming cars.” “Careful about painful deaths or a horrid rape in this novel, which may upset you.”

But reading or seeing a great work should precisely put you at the creator’s mercy—how else would you learn from him or her? If authors want to surprise you, starkly and startlingly, they should be allowed to do so without warning. Any student who needs that kind of help has something seriously wrong with him, and may need psychological assistance; the work of art needs no such help.

I am especially struck by the attitude of Bailey Loverin, who in her picture looks perfectly normal. A sophomore at Santa Barbara, she said “the idea came to her . . .  after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been the victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.”

What makes her reaction reprehensible? First of all, the arrogance of assuming such superiority to other students. If she, despite good reason, wasn’t upset by the film, maybe there wasn’t anything in it that could upset any normal person, even given past incidents. So why complain to the professor, unless perhaps to show off.

The real issue here is the nature of this being upset. Does it mean anything more than feeling intensely sorry for the victim, although it was only a movie or a novel? Such empathy is by no means amiss. It may prove, if anything, therapeutic. If it produces anything more drastic than that, look not to mollycoddling but to therapy.

A student who has a violent reaction strikes me as sick. Moreover, I don’t see how being warned can make much a difference. A predicted hurt is ultimately just as hurtful as an unpredicted one. Tell me I am about to get a beating and forthwith the beating becomes painless? And what way is there to prepare after such a  warning? With stringent physical exercise? With a specially invigorating meal? With clutching a pet dog or cat you brought along to the screening? With taking some sort of anti-anxiety medication? In the case of a book, must you skip pages 154 to 163? Or, safest of all, not read such a dangerous book as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” cited in the article as trauma-inducing.

At Oberlin College, a draft guide was circulated “asking professors to put trigger warning in their syllabuses” concerning the following, which “might cause trauma.” They are: racism, classism. heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and “other issues of privilege and oppression.” Because even the adult reader might need some warning, the Times explained cissexism as “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender [sic[ This neologism, may need explication. But anyone can figure out the equally clumsy “ableism.”

I particularly savor the horror of “classism.” Visualize a movie in which a glamorous hostess refuses to invite her hairdresser to a party, and then imagine the convulsions and nausea afflicting the more sensitive spectators.

What arrogance—or stupidity—from these Oberlin petitioners. If professors put such a warning in the course catalogue, there would be no shortage of students avoiding that course altogether to their eventual impoverishment. After a while, the school would drop such a course, to the disadvantage of all potential students.

But whereas student benightedness may come as no surprise, faculty pusillanimity does. TheTimes article quotes Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of  the College of Arts and Sciences, as declaring that “providing students with warnings would simply be responsible pedagogical practice.’” She explains that “We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Allow me an obiter dictum on the use of “issues.” People nowadays no longer have problems or difficulties, they have ”issues.” I myself have problems with this use of “issues,” unless I am mishearing, and what is said “is shoes.” Too tight, too high-heeled, too expensive. But back to the students.

If it were up to me, it would be compulsory to take courses that might upset them. We may have reached the point where students can be taught only by shock treatment. Profoundly upset students would be immediately recognizable as needful of psychological help, which could accordingly be administered. Such trigger warning to the faculty and administration might prevent later, more serious student breakdowns.

But if the students are merely displaying fake altruism as a form of self-importance, (like, I suspect, Bailey Loverin), let them not benefit from someone like Associate Dean Raimondo, who says, “I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up.’ That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with.” I share the objection. Kids, for the most part, are tough enough. It’s the professors and administrators who need toughening.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Valuable Is Rarity?

A good many people are content to be part of the ordinary multitude. A good many others are not thus content. There is the not infrequent desire to be special, outstanding, even unique. This translates into becoming powerful or, more modestly, interestingly different. But how is that difference, let alone power, achievable?

It isn’t easy. One way is to be, or become, very rich. Yet that registers as special mostly to the degree one is envied by everyone else. This can require great zeal or great indolence as well as money; we read about millionaires, men or women, for whom wealth brought only misery.

Such people were unhappily or multiply married, with usually highly publicized divorces, perhaps as a kind of serial rather than simultaneous polygamy. This means a media-begotten celebrity, though not of the kind that most seekers would welcome. So what are other, better ways of achieving fame?

It could be by the youth and beauty of an elderly nabob’s trophy wife. The downside of that is that most of such celebrity goes to the wife rather than to the nabob. Reflected glory is, after all, a second-rate sort of distinction. But there are other kinds of extraordinariness more greatly prized. One of them is an impressive art collection.

That would require an appreciable amount of Rembrandts, Picassos or Van Goghs. (Pathetic, by the way, when you think how unsold and impoverished Vincent was during his lifetime. And how many millions even his lesser works go for nowadays.) The good thing about a major art collection is the number of ways you can score with it.

One, of course, is just by reveling in it. Then there is promising it posthumously to some major museum. Another way is to offer it up for sale, and collecting big money thereby. Still another is to start your own museum, with your name attached to it. Moreover, it devolves to your glory just that you collected such a lofty thing as art, rather than, say, vintage automobiles, which requires much more space and is less readily displayable.

Now, speaking of space, what demands less of it than postage stamps? Of all types of collection, stamps may be the most convenient, but also the most questionable. There are, to be sure, some desperate souls who claim practical benefits from philately. They allege that you learn things about geography or, better yet, history from stamps. These can display historic figures, historic locations, historic events, familiarity with which enriches the lives of collectors.

Alas, when it comes to learning history, history books are preferable by far to stamps. What good is it, for instance, to learn that there was a major exhibition in such and such a year in Chicago? And does it profit us greatly to possess in miniature the face of, say, the inventor of the sewing machine or the last czar of Russia? Why, even Madame Curie can be duly revered without owning her countenance on a postage stamp. But, you say, what if a stamp is a miniature work of art?

This, I regret to say, happens more often in Europe than in America. And whereas art on your wall does something for you, your kinfolk, and your visiting friends, what good is a tiny artwork buried in an album, and not to be steadily viewed? It is about as good as a fine painting hung face to the wall.

This is where rarity comes in. I read in the Times of May 2 about what may be the rarest postage stamp of all, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, of which there is only one surviving specimen in the entire world. The newspaper refers to it as the Mona Lisa of stamps, and observes that it should fetch, at the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, somewhere between ten and twenty million dollars.

Yet it is not even as famous, or as upside–down, as the Inverted Jenny, a stamp of which there exist a hundred. A rather blurred picture of the One-Cent Magenta appears in the Times, which does not even clearly reveal what it depicts, namely “a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that translates as ‘we give and we take in return.’” All that is clear in this newspaper illustration is the stamp’s octagonal shape, unusual enough, but probably not quite worth ten million, let alone twenty.

But yes, there is that rarity, that stamp’s uniqueness. Still, why should rarity, or even uniqueness, be worth that much? Let’s say you have a gorgeous girlfriend of Hollywood caliber or, better yet, as beautiful as a Botticelli Venus. Let us even assume that, should you be able to sell her, she’d bring in, being a rare specimen, a hefty sum. But ten or twenty million? I suspect not.

The rarity business strikes me as altogether spurious. Why should rare be synonymous with precious? If everyone owned a Maserati, Lomberghini or Rolls-Royce, would that make it less satisfying to own? If your girlfriend were the last remaining woman on earth to look like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, would that make her better company at the breakfast table, to say nothing of between the sheets?

I think rarity is vastly overrated, in stamps or anything else. But there it is. So gold is worth more than copper, even though it wouldn’t, in my esteem, look appreciably better than copper in a frying pan. Whatever beauty gold possesses need not in itself justify its enormous price. It is the rarity that does it. There was a Gold Rush; there could never be an Aluminum Rush. And then consider platinum, which, if you ask me, doesn’t even look as good as chrome.

Which brings me back to envy and to one of its provokers, the boast. Face it: most if not all of us enjoy being able to boast about something. Whether it’s your son getting straight A’s in his senior year in high school, your wife’s fabulous beef Stroganoff, your ancestors’ trip on the Mayflower, or the impermeability of your trench coat (or perhaps just its brand: Burberry); all those are things to boast about.  And yet they are not all that rare—think how many people must own Burberry trench coats. But it’s a brand, and not inexpensive, hence less ordinary, more prestigious, than the one you picked up out of desperation when you were caught in the rain in Podunk.

Granted that either garment will keep you dry, the British one is more rare; it alone is not only proof against the rain but also proof of your affluence, and of your rare good taste.

Still, rarity may in some cases be an actual disadvantage. Say you have a rare disease, or are a rare visitor to a watering place long since gone out of fashion.
What no one wants may easily be as rare as what everyone wants. Hula-Hoops, a year after they ceased to be (briefly) in fashion, have become hard to find, but does their unstylish rarity confer prestige on their tacky possessors?

Let us, however, beware of the opposite error and assume that all rarity is meaningless and absurd when overvalued. It is very rare to live to be a hundred, but is the rarity of being that old a privilege or a drag for its possessor and the caretakers? Like so much else, rarity is what you make of it.

Which reminds me of a tale by Anatole France, which I read as a youth. I recall it somewhat dimly, but no less approvingly. A mighty but troubled ruler is told by a seer that he will be happy only when he wears the shirt of a truly happy man. He orders his flunkies to find him such a shirt. Needless to say, they head for the abodes of the rich.

Yet all the wealthy turn out to be variously unhappy. One rich man, for example, takes these seekers onto his terrace, affording a magnificent view of his vast lands. But, as he points out, way out there is a barely visible, thin column of smoke rising from a chimney, which ruins the view for him. And so on, with mogul after mogul.

Finally, however, the searchers come across a shepherd who sings merrily while contentedly tending to his flock, and is of manifest good cheer. They fall upon him, tear off his jacket and lo, poor as he is, he doesn’t even own a shirt.

The moral of the story is that happiness is a wonderful thing but has nothing to do with rareness. It depends not on disposables but on disposition. Neither rarity nor frequency is of itself a good thing

So there is something very arbitrary about automatically valuing things for how rare they are. Or how not rare they are. What comes closest to real value is quite independent of quantity, whether profuse or scanty. But neither is it a nonsensical concept. If you love mashed potatoes, you love them equally whether you get them once a month or once a week.

Yet what a different world this would be if value were universally recognized as totally independent of rarity. If imitation leather were considered no worse than the genuine, provided it looked as good and functioned as dependably. How many of us moderately well off would then be as contented as the rich.

A better world, one likes to think. But then again, is that rare thing, excellence—or, better yet, perfection, if such a thing is possible—not to be sought? Of course it is. So I would say that a talent for surgery, is an admirable thing, however rare or not; whereas a gift for solving crossword puzzles, however rare or not, is of no great consequence.

Then to acquire the One-Cent Magenta, except for the purpose of selling it, would hardly be worth the effort. On the other hand, the opportunity and ability to enjoy the great arts, any and all of them, is well worth any number of One-Cent Magentas. But hold on: if any number existed, they wouldn’t be Mona Lisas in the first place. No better, in fact, than what you could purchase at your neighborhood Post Office.