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.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Some things are absurd. I am frequently accused of misogyny; what nonsense! For me, there is nothing more beautiful in the world, and thus more sacred, than a beautiful woman. True, this excludes many women; it presupposes beauty of face and body, of limbs and extremities—ideally, the convergence of several beauties into one.

Of course, face and figure are the most important, and, after that, legs and behind. But one can be a beautiful woman without perfection in all parts; we think of Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney and Liz Taylor as beautiful, even if none of them had perfect legs. And unless we have seen them in bikinis, we cannot vouch for their derrieres. And sometimes not even then.

But even with some imperfections, there is nothing, I repeat, more beautiful than a beautiful woman. This is true even in art, hence the prevalence of female nudes. But art also reveals to us how the concept of beauty has changed over the years. What was beautiful for Rubens or Rembrandt is quite different from what was beautiful for Manet or Modigliani. 

Thus what I proclaim beautiful today may not be so for future generations. Even so, let me name a number of actresses from several countries whom, at one time or another, I have found beautiful. Even just writing down their names gives me a frisson of beatitude.

Isabelle Adjani, Anouk Aimée, Bibi Andersson, Ursula Andress, Laura Antonelli, Karin Baal, Barbara Bach, Brigitte Bardot, Halle Berry, Adriana Beneti, Laura Betti, Jacqueline Bisset, Florinda Bolkan, Francesca Braggiotti, Genevieve Bujold, Leslie Caron, Valentina Cortese, Dorothy Dandridge, Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Doris Dowling, Anita Ekberg, Lena Endre, Jane Fonda, Megan Fox, Jane Greer, Virginia Grey, Camilla Horn, Brigitte Horney, Marsha Hunt, Jennifers Garner and Lopez, Jessicas Alba and Beil, Angelina Jolie, Katalin Karádi, Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley, Johanna von Koczian, Hilde Krahl, La Jana, Hedy Lamarr, Diane Lane, Virginie Ledoyen, Vivien Leigh, Sofia Loren, Anita Louise, Antonella Lualdi, Silvana Mangano, Lea Massari, Irene von Meyendorff, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Sarah Miles, Marilyn Monroe,  Rossana Podesta, Micheline Presle, Liselotte Pulver, Lee Remick, Julia Roberts, Laila Robins, Keri Russell, Romy Schneider, Simone Signoret, Alexis Smith, Kristina Söderbaum, Audrey Tautou, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlize Theron, Ingrid Thulin, Gene Tierney, Nadja Tiller, Mari Törőcsik and Alida Valli.

Given my lifelong distaste for lists, I have herewith contradicted myself, but, like others who have lapsed into self-contradiction, I invoke Walt Whitman in my defense. Some seeming contradictions may even be mere changes of opinion, which are perfectly permissible.

Now, what of looks acquired through or enhanced by cosmetic surgery? Some people regard that as cheating, indeed invalid. Not so I; I say beauty is beauty, however achieved.

More problematic are women whose sexiness, though not exactly beauty, proves a compelling substitute. Think Nastassja Kinski or Gloria Grahame.

Sometimes the boundaries are blurry and it is hard to decide whether a woman is beautiful or just sexy: think Marion Cotillard, Susan Sarandon or Sigourney Weaver. What is certain is that no straight man would kick any of them out of bed. 

Someone might wonder why my list is as long as it is. Usually lists are of the ten-best or twenty-best variety. This one could easily have been much longer and I am sure to be soon kicking myself for some obvious omissions. The intention was to include those women who, at my various stages, have been most attractive, most exciting to me.

Definitely omitted are women who were merely lovable. That is more of an inner beauty, not visible, and therefore not to be counted. It is more goodness than beauty, though the two sometimes get confused. Not to be omitted were some actresses not known to many of my readers. Not any of them ended up in my arms, but once a woman becomes a memory, there is scant difference between what you had and what you only yearned for.

You most likely know how pleasurable it is to live with a lovely view outside your windows. Well, how about having it inside your walls in the forms of a beautiful face and figure? 

You go to bed content and wake up content, and in between there is something even better. You are not plagued by envy of other men, and feel affluent without a dollar in the bank. Life itself has become beautiful.

To be sure, you may resent knowing, or just knowing of, a woman beautiful without deserving it in the slightest. Why such injustice? You must then be either very young or blind not to be resigned to there being no justice in the world.

And then, again, how relative everything is! I see on my computer a full-length picture of Jane Greer in a bikini and leaning on an outdoor chair. She is stunning from top to toe, yet out of eleven respondents, one, so Google tells me, finds her feet ugly. This strikes me as totally incomprehensible. Tastes may differ, but white cannot be anyone’s black, square anyone’s round. Jane Greer’s feet are just fine; is that respondent an idiot?

The only problem with female beauty is that, like any other, lesser one, it ages. Some women age better than others, but none, alas, stays forever young. Some women are beautiful even in old age, but merely with the austere, cold beauty of the monument they have become. It is not even the just one remove from the flesh and blood kind of a photograph. It inspires merely a remote nostalgia for what the woman must have been or, if she is a friend or spouse, was. She is even a symbol of mortality, inducing a kind of melancholy respect. Is that a good feeling? I truly don’t know.