Saturday, March 30, 2013


What exactly does talent involve? I know what it doesn’t involve. I fully subscribe to the declaration of the autobiographical hero of Anatole France’s Le Lys rouge (The Scarlet Lily): “I am not so deprived of all talent as to occupy myself with politics.”

What precisely is American politics about? Does it involve talent? I submit that politics hereabouts is a spectator sport, a form of gamesmanship. You root for a candidate the way you root for a baseball team, which you love even as you hate or despise the other teams. “Partisanship” is related to “party,” and you know which one you root for: the donkeys or the elephants. Elephants, we know, are smart, and donkeys are smarter than most people realize—how else could they follow surefootedly a steep, narrow and perilous mountain path? But how much should we really care about the propaganda of one or the other?

What kind of talent, if any, is required for politics? Could it involve intellect? Far from it. While all other minorities have their champions and victories, the only American minority that is either despised or ignored is the intellectual, which never even had a successful spokesman.

Just think: I can come up with only three presidential candidates who qualified as intellectuals, all unsuccessful: Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Well, the last-named was a bit of a nutcase, but the other two were not, yet their indisputable talents went for naught. (They might not have made more effective presidents than a Bush or a Carter, but that is not the point.) It is true that Obama, starting with his earlier distinction at the Harvard Law School, may qualify as an intellectual, but his success came in spite, not because, of it—for other reasons, which not being my subject, I won’t go into here.

I adduce as characteristic of hoi polloi downgrading talent an incident from my brief, inglorious military career during World War Two. A fellow soldier asked me where I was from originally. I named the now defunct country of Yugoslavia. “I see,” or something similar, he said: “that explains your broken lingo.” Now, I have been accused of linguistic elitism, or, in other words, using some “big words” readily and unabashedly. The sort of vocabulary that is considered by the majority affected,  arrogant, elitist, and definitely undesirable. But nothing like a broken lingo.

And what, in any case, is wrong with elitism? All it implies is a certain choosiness (from the Latin eligere, to choose). As in preferring the beautiful to the ugly (Liz Cho and Sade Baderingwa over Lena Dunham and Kathy Griffin), the intelligent over the dumb (Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen over Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow), the true poet over the faker (Amy Clampit and Mary Oliver over Jori Graham and Maya Angelou). Or, if we must pick politicians, the ones who don’t filibuster over the ones who do.

But talent, true talent, is up against an all too formidable adversary: stupidity. Consider the brilliant epigraph that the wonderful Ödön von Horváth appended to his masterpiece, Tales from the Vienna Woods: “Nothing provides so well the sense of infinity as does stupidity.” In German: Nichts gibt so sehr das Gefühl der Unendlichkeit als wie die Dummheit, and I always suspected that the redundant als wie was intended to accommodate popular, non-elitist parlance.

Stupidity is truly pervasive in our society on all levels. Take the unfortunates who whoop it up and give standing ovations to a Broadway show, no matter how stupid. Or the ones who assume that an Oscar, Tony, or Pulitzer—even a Nobel—is a guarantee of quality, as witness such a phony movie as The Artist, play like Water by the Spoonful, or novel like The Name of the Rose. The accolade they deserve is a kick in the rear.

Even smart people have their weaknesses, why else the quasi-intellectual success of the Wodehouse novels, where the facile joke is on the  stupidity of Bertie Wooster. That is a type of cheap humor rather than genuine wit, as in works where the laughs come from the clash of equals.

Of course there are inequalities of talent as well. I often cite the story of the juggler performing before a French king by impaling tossed peas on a long needle held by his son. The king rewarded him with a sack full of small, round objects the thrower took to be nuggets, but proved to be more peas.

Which brings me to the circus, another parallel with politics. Here some remarkable talents of a sort are applauded by multitudes that wouldn’t set foot in a theater or opera house. Now, I have nothing against acrobats and artistes—I enjoy their skills myself—but I do not equate them with the talent of artists without a final “e.”

And while we are on the subject of benightedness, what about the not inconsiderable number of responders to my last blog post about feminine beauty, in which I cited some seventy actresses who had, over the years, elicited the fan in me. (By the way, I should not have overlooked Blythe Danner and Emmanuelle Béart.) It netted me the ire of feminists or P.C. peddlers who accused me of “objectification,” as if responding to feminine beauty were tantamount to reification.

Yet this was much like my admiration for feminine beauty in art, as for instance in the women of Botticelli, without my slightest desire to hump a painting. To love beauty in any form, from the highest to the lowest, seems to me justified, even if it is merely preferring the dogs in a kennel show to those on a street corner. (Next I’ll be accused of zoophilia.)

But even if relishing the beauty of an actress were sexually motivated, where is the harm? Is that such a sin? Is it objectification? It is unfortunate that the term “sex object” has been invented. Unless you are a brute, fantasizing sex with a woman—even if you prefer Angelina Jolie to Barbra Streisand—does not reduce her to a sex object. Or else all those amorous husbands enjoying intercourse with their wives would be turning them into sex objects. I doubt whether mere kindred of souls motivates conjugal intercourse. The reductive view of healthy sexual appetite as objectification I find truly objectionable.

I will make one concession here. It is quite understandable for us poorer folk to envy or resent the fortune of billionaires, especially when such wealth is acquired on the basis of being able, under contesting circumstances, to toss a ball into a basket. So I can appreciate a homely woman’s resentment of a Liz Taylor or Carla Bruni. Even then, though, it is more dignified to keep that feeling private, if not indeed unvoiced, rather than carrying on shrilly about alleged objectification.


  1. Mr. Simon once called me "untalented and irritating." For that I would be forever grateful, except for the fact that he misspelled my name. But, I do and have always enjoyed reading him. So, thanks to you, Mr. Simian.

  2. For me, Wodehouse's humor is not in Bertie's stupidity, but in the phrases invented, manners, and human nature. Here's a few scattered bits from Joy in the Morning.
    --Aunt Agatha, for many years a widow, or derelict, as I believe it is called.
    --She: Do you REALLY read Spinoza?
    Bertie: It's extraordinary how one yields to that fatal temptation to swank.
    --[Regarding a scolding female] She was at no loss of words on either theme.
    --Aunt Agatha caused me to curl up in a ball in the hope that a meek subservience would enable me to get off lightly.
    --I don't know the first thing about fixing a car, my talents being limited to twisting the wheel and tooting the tooter.

  3. To your question of what kind of talent(s), if any, is necessary in politics, I would point you to a passage by Abraham Lincoln in his "Eulogy for Henry Clay".

    "It is probably true [Clay] owed his pre-eminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate combination of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but many eloquent men fail utterly; and they are not, as a class, generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many men of good judgment, live and die unnoticed. His will was indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These then were Mr. Clay's leading qualities. No one of them is very uncommon; but all taken together are rarely combined in a single individual; and this is probably the reason why such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the world."

    Pretty important qualities, all of which Lincoln himself possessed in large degree.

  4. Real beauty:

  5. "I can come up with only three presidential candidates who qualified as intellectuals, all unsuccessful: Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Well, the last-named was a bit of a nutcase, but the other two were not, yet their indisputable talents went for naught. (They might not have made more effective presidents than a Bush or a Carter, but that is not the point.) It is true that Obama, starting with his earlier distinction at the Harvard Law School, may qualify as an intellectual..."

    Not true. You are confusing well-educated types with intellectuals. Stevenson was an egghead, not an intellectual. He was well-read and erudite, but a true intellectual thinks his own thoughts and comes up with new ideas. Thus, not all scholars are intellectuals. Not every educator is an intellectual. A real intellectual absorbs a lot of knowledge and ideas and then puts for his own grand theory or vision of how things really are or should be. I don't recall Stevenson, McGovern, or McCarthy came up with any big idea of the world. They just belonged to the chattering classes with the credentials. Same with Obama, the affirmative action baby. He knew a bunch of rich Pakistanis and later Jews, and they showed him the ropes. Obama has produced nothing of any intellectual originality and insight during his Harvard and University of Chicago yrs.

    Simon here is confusing class snobbery with real intellectualism. He's talking of a class of people with the 'best and brightest' credentials who may actually be just a bunch of social climbers.

    Of course, given that intellectuals like Marx and Lenin messed up the world so badly, intellectualism isn't always a good thing. Intellectuals too often favor their own idea of the world to the real world, to their idea of how people should be than how people really are.

  6. "Stupidity is truly pervasive in our society on all levels."

    But with all due respect to Simon's illustrious career as a critic and scholar, what can be stupider than hating Baroque music, Bach, and Beethoven?
    What can be stupider than praising the now forgotten films of Michael Ritchie to those of Kubrick, who now looms as a giant?

    1. 'Smile' is a great film,
      Exposing human van'ties---
      With each section framed
      By day-of-the-week panties.

  7. "the intelligent over the dumb (Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen over Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow)"

    Bergman made some dumb movies too. And Woody Allen made stuff like Interiors and Another Woman. Tarantino is not a dumb guy--at least Reservoir Dogs is a masterpiece--but a stupid and infantile guy. His problem is lack of maturity. (But if Bergman was so smart, what the hell was he doing alone on some island in the early 70s and making a film as dreary as Passion of Anna?)

    As for Apatow, he's at least intelligent in knowing how to make mass entertainment that can earn him gazillions of dollars. He's not dumb dumb but smart-dumb, i.e. he knows how to make dumb stuff intelligently enough to sell to the masses. Making dumb stuff intelligently isn't easy.

  8. "And what, in any case, is wrong with elitism? All it implies is a certain choosiness (from the Latin eligere, to choose)."

    Elitism has different meanings. It can mean meritocratism, a good thing in a free society. But it can also mean aristocratism where the power and privilege of the elites may not be deserved.
    It could also mean style over substance. Thus, a vapid and shallow person with the proper haughty style may be favored over a seemingly vulgar person who may actually be truer. Consider Kurosawa's SANJURO where the vulgar ronin actually turns out to be a better human being that the social elites with the proper facades who rule the roost. Elitism is often a matter of appearances and mannerisms than true worth.

    Elitism can also be a kind of moral narcissism. Notice how privileged whites in places like NY--including Simon--put on haughty airs and look down on most white Americans. Simon sneeringly dismisses Americans who want guns but he has no clue that many Americans rely on guns for protection from the criminal elements. As long as he's cloistered in his elite world of high culture and rubbing shoulders with the chattering classes, how could he understand the reality of the real people?

  9. Quentin Crisp defined politics as "the art of making the inevitable appear to be a matter of wise human choice."

  10. Ashley Green as Alice Cullen. Real beaut.


    Beauty can drive someone nuts.

  12. John, glad to see that Emmanuelle Béart made your list of film beauties. Nothing wrong with appreciating and relishing in the beauty of a film actress. What's wrong with a woman's being beautiful? And what's wrong a man's appreciating that beauty and writing about his appreciation?

  13. "It is true that Obama, starting with his earlier distinction at the Harvard Law School, may qualify as an intellectual..."

    If so, it would be an academic distinction without a shred of a paper trail (much less a Paper Chase). That's Obama's true distinction: a record with no record.

  14. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Adlai Stevenson. About the godfather of all self-help gurus, Norman Vincent Peale, and comparing him with St. Paul, Stevenson quipped:

    I find Paul appealing, and Peale appalling.

  15. "I doubt whether mere kindred of souls motivates conjugal intercourse."

    If the couple's into S&M,
    Matters not if the wife looks like Auntie Em.

  16. Each partner should be the key
    That fits the other partner's lock---
    Great beauty could be essential,
    Or it could be a superfluous crock---

    For varied are the aspects
    Of a healthy human creature---
    Solicitude, the meeting of needs
    Matter more than fairness of feature.

  17. Please write something about Roger Ebert, I am utterly nauseated by the praises this mediocrity has been getting now that he's dropped dead. By the way, two thumbs way up on dropping dead, Roger.

    1. Suffice with this.

      While I also think the praises are overblown and bordering on the ridiculous, it's ugly to make fun of someone dying, especially one who suffered terribly from cancer for so long. We don't have to like Ebert, but show some class.

    2. Agree with Mikos. No need to relish or take joy in another man's suffering. But while he may have been a nice man and a loving husband, Ebert was still a mediocre movie reviewer at best. He was so weak in his reviews that when he started becoming a film groupie and standing pathetically on the red carpet at award ceremonies, it was difficult to conclude that he had "sold out." After all, why should the movie industry pay for something that it can have for free?

  18. Martin Short and a colleague (whose name I can't recall) did some nicely below-the-belt spoofs on Ebert and Siskel -- with Short in full fatman makeup (anticipating his later stints as Jiminy Glick).

    When both Ebert and Siskel gave their "guarded thumbs up" to two of Schwarzenegger's last abominable films and even prattled on about how entertaining they were, I figured something was up more than their thumbs; and I wouldn't put it past that sociopathic Austrian to have offered them a cool million apiece for their pollices sursum.