Corey Robin Reviews a Book About Trump

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The following transcribes my email to a correspondent who provided the original link to this blog entry by Corey Robin. I used to see these (and comment) on Facebook. But I’ve managed lately (like for the better part of a week) so far to stay away from Facebook, except at arm’s length.

Here’s the link to the book review http://coreyrobin.com/2017/03/14/the-real-parallel-between-hitler-and-trump/

And here’s what I had to say:

Email to a friend, today’s date, about the current Corey Robin blog entry

I am predicting you won’t mind my lapse into old ways and responding directly to what I saw was a recent post while making one of my lightning checks of Facebook.

I feel so much better, incidentally, these days, avoiding Facebook consciously, indeed mindfully, as it’s still necessary to resist the unconscious reflex after perusing this or that news site on the web to drop down my bookmark menu for “Social” and click on the blue F (good title for a murder mystery, “The Blue F”). I realized without undue mental exertion that what depressed me was not the news—though it’s surely no cause for joy or a sense of well-being—but the peculiar embellishment of the effects of relentless dispatches from the front lines of anarchy, otherwise known as the White House (have you noticed that increasingly the news media have taken to iconizing the actual physical seat of executive administration of the government, just as the Brits did decades and decades ago with 10 Downing Street? My theory is, it’s a way for the news “good guys”—what we usually call, as if there were something vaguely blasphemic about the epithet, the establishment news or the mainstream media—to continue to separate the Trump administration from the rest of the government, which they hope not only metaphorically to quarantine, but to do so literally, lest the contagion spread uncontrollably like the super bacterium it is [trying to think of another metaphor yet, to throw into the mix, but that’s enough], and also, of course, as a way, literally as well, to avoid having to set the name Trump in type yet again, bolstering the data mining results of the future). It’s not what the news media say, though enough of it constitute crimes against English, if not against truth altogether, beyond mere execrable writing.

Cover of Making of Donald Trump

The Making of Donald Trump bookcover

In any event, thanks for the Corey Robin link [to his review of the David Cay Johnston book, The Making of Donald Trump], as it, if for no other reason, reminds me that I have to subscribe to his feed or I will no longer, in the medium to long run, be reminded by you to see if there are a few unbruised fruit and un-blighted seeds to harvest from his particular tree of knowledge.

Nice to see that he seems to have put back under control his tendency to foam at the mouth.

This was a nice review, and true enough, I’m sure, but it’s evidence of the continuing crime of recycling old news. Why is it that so many liberals, if not those further left on the spectrum, think that the regular glance “rere regardant,” as Joyce put it in Ulysses, is necessary to keep from repeating old sins? Or, more likely, as if keeping the misfortunes of our time in the forefront of our consciousness will somehow ameliorate the abstract condition of our lives by halting, through a sheer act of collective will, the progress of the ill effects of the latest form of exploitation (like enough, surely, ever more virulent—there’s that super bacterium metaphor again…), in this case aka “the White House.” I won’t even talk about what Johnston is doing with such a book, aside from a public service of course for those not paying attention to the last 30 years. It was likely a lot of work, and I don’t criticize that, or begrudge him the rewards of an appreciative marketplace.

So, finally, and then I’ll let this, and you, go. He (Corey that is) says, “the systemic corruption of our rentier economy,” which is a nice twist I guess on a slightly shopworn locution. Except, as usual, I must take, indeed, exception to the use of “corruption,” suggesting that, at some previous time, the system of which we all are part, was sound and pure and unsullied by decay. Which I don’t believe. I think it (the system) has some genes deep within that, though not manifest at conception, inevitably prove an almost unavoidable tendency to develop a cancer. Back in the day, I mean 1781, they simply hadn’t yet conceived of the banking laws we are so clever to have ginned up starting back in the 1920s, if not earlier. For example.

And, I would prefer had he (Corey) stuck to the more prevalent condition in the use of the phrase—which was used most poignantly for me when my shrink told me at some point during the analysis to which I subjected myself for about four years back in the 1980s, when I had money to donate to my shrink’s mortgage holder, “we’re all renters.” True enough, I’ve come to discover, especially in that the phrase applies in all situations, just like “this too shall pass.” It’s only a very small number of self-privileged ones, somehow impervious to the corruption in which they thrive (what is evil, after all, to the devil?) who can legitimately call themselves, as well, “rentiers.” So. Not so clever after all. It’s just rubbing it in.

see you elsewhere on the ‘net, I hope…

xoxo

hhd

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In Medio Facebook

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I tend to think about my life these days in terms of a cultural phenomenon I have, at best, ambivalent feelings about. There is a strong trend, as we like to say on the Internet, to loathing. I am talking about Facebook, of course. Life tends to divide, thinking about it from the vantage of now, among pre-Facebook, and being in the midst of it, and what I hope I will be able to label as post-Facebook. I am in the middle of withdrawal.

It’s not the first time. I subscribed to Facebook, though I contributed in an insignificant way at the beginning: from the time of its inception as a public forum on the web. It was in 2007. I became more and more active, and increasingly vociferous about my discomfort participating, starting in 2009. The record, or partially so, of all this is recorded here on 1StandardDeviation.com. Included in the archive (you won’t find it on Facebook because I deleted my first account in 2012 for a period of about eight months) is a farewell to Facebook—also here.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to search. I am not encouraging you to read it, given my recidivism. I rejoined Facebook that same year, and have been quite active, with a voluminous output mainly in the form of lengthy posts, largely (to my mind) in the form of an extended and fractionated apologia. There were also many many links posted, with what I hoped always were evocative or enlightened or, possibly, provocative introductory comments. Most of these were, from the evidence of the overall responsiveness of a closed readership, either ignored, or not too inspiring, or (what I believe is most likely) never seen because of Facebook management’s strange protocols and algorithms for distributing posts even to one’s own manageable friends’ list. I rarely, if ever, posted publicly (because of a distaste for engaging with potential trolls—the mere day-to-day of absorbing the less-than-determinative mix of elements I was exposed to on the famous newsfeed, and responding in a measured, rational, and well-meaning way, as much as possible with good will and humor is enough of a challenge). I have just a little over 100 well-chosen and considered individuals on my list of Facebook friends.

I accepted long since, because I don’t have the desire to “follow” each of them persistently, if not doggedly and grudgingly, that it was probably also true about each of them with regard to my choices as to what to lay at their doorsill for review, if not perusal. Hence, likely as not, the chief reason they didn’t respond in any way—the preponderance of them with not even a “like”—was because they didn’t even see a post, which is not to dismiss the possibility they saw none. Ever.

I am someone who gets on a social medium for the sociability of it—the only reason for the connection is the connection, the sense of having ties and to take advantage of the opportunity to converse, however etiolated the connection. I do and have always appreciated the band of “regulars” I seemed to have cultivated. The usual roundup of Renaultean “suspects” were the people I could count on to offer a comment and thereby, often enough, start a conversation. Stilted as it may have been—a phenomenon attributable solely to me, because I was mindful, likely overly so, that private as the space may seem on Facebook, someone is always monitoring and filtering. It is a public space, no matter what alterations to the policy statement, especially that regarding our so-called “privacy,” the jejune and profit-grubbing commissariat of Facebook might testify otherwise periodically.

The pleasure of connecting with friends was valuable, and in a good way, measured in the spirit of the exchanges, incalculable. However nothing about it was unique to Facebook. The only thing unique is the peculiar condition of seeming round-the-clock access one has to one’s friends. Not all of one’s friends, for sure. At least in my case, a significant number of friends forbore and either never joined Facebook or had the greater strength than I could muster, but that one time, and removed themselves, pretty well for good. I maintain contact with them in the “old” ways, which still work, of course.

One of the deficits to Facebook, in order to glean what measured and titrated pleasures it affords, is the amount of time one must devote to it to exact those pleasures as a kind of reward. I don’t need Facebook for any other purpose to which people put a whole arsenal of means of contact together. Indeed, some methods, like good old-fashioned email, are still better, given a certain mix of demographic characteristics in any segment of one’s social set. Our neighbors—literally the people who live in a state of propinquity in our town—still best confer for whatever communal purpose by email. Only one of our neighbors, and she is one of my valued, staunch, and consistent “usual suspects” among the tiny number, really, of reliable correspondents, is on Facebook.

The overall deficiency of Facebook is determined not only by the disproportion of desired opportunities for substantive contact with other human beings, balanced against exposure to the clichéd booming buzzing chaos of society at large in the myriad forms this disorder takes on Facebook, inescapably, and is colored, indeed overshadowed emotionally by the dark view I get of humanity at large thereby. It may all be me. But if so, it’s a problem I’d rather deal with by removing myself from the provocation.

In all events, I find myself, once again, feeling, at best (and it’s a deteriorating condition) ambivalent about this social boon, which at latest count (according to Statistica) stands at over 1.85 billion people around the world subscribing and, theoretically at least, potentially online all at the same time. It’s more a testament to the triumph of the technology necessary, and the cleverness exercised at developing and managing that technology in real time—reliably and transparently, indeed oiling the mechanism to make it seem effortless—that allows the possibility. It is not a testament to the wish of any sane person to want to have contact with any representative sampling of humanity, never mind fully one-quarter of mankind inhabiting the planet all at once.

In all events, it’s my sanity that I feel is being tested. More my equanimity and sense of well-being, with a realistic sense of my worth, and the worth of my time, best spent in productive pursuits as I define them than my ability to be rational. But these are times where rationality must be not merely clinged to, as a life preserver, but stood behind as a bulwark to help keep the vessel afloat and on course. Increasingly, as we all confront the swells of the waves, and the tempests that rise up to stir up and electrify the whole atmosphere, it’s more important to see to the fitness of the vessel than merely to worry about survival by finding diversions and distractions. There are plenty of each of these on Facebook. And I needn’t do more than mention, never mind even think of belaboring, the inadequacy of the channel called Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is working with desperate ingenuity to turn into a medium that will serve all purposes, no matter how ill-suited it is to inform without bias, and to provide safe harbor from hysteria.

All of what I’ve said in the foregoing is prelude and prologue to writing I have done, and am continuing to write, about the phenomenon of Facebook, especially insofar as one person, myself, has experienced it, and spent far too much time in one regard pondering that experience and trying to elicit some sense. In the hopes that I have begun to delineate that sense and it’s a sense that may prove useful to others trying to understand, if not merely decipher, one of the major phenomena of our time that is bound to define at least this episode, now ten years in duration and promising to continue, in the formation of the culture, the living culture, in which we all are a part.


What’s past is prolog; Facebook as reality distortion—a foreword

One difference between pre- and post-FB behavior is the loss of that restraint that allowed us to keep thoughts to ourselves, reserving judgment on whether it’s appropriate even to say things to the few people for whom they are truly intended. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to say things publicly that, if we thought about it, will give offense to somebody and beyond that, even if truly innocuous, is of fleeting interest to most.

Mindy Kaling, one of the great comic sages of our time (yes this is sarcasm) had a great aperçu—undoubtedly an accident, but then she tweets all the time, so statistics are on her side—and that is, “People take things at face value on social media. Earnestness is the assumption.” Better that, I suppose than having to craft an apology, as in the old days, when you spoke out of turn, or unwisely hit the “send” button. However, this is merely the largest of the ineluctable consequences of making all personal communications accessible through public channels (yes, I’m being ornery and contrary; FB is not a medium—paint is a medium, pen and ink is a medium—it’s a channel, you know?, a conduit, a canal or, if you prefer, a sewer). We’ve lost nuance. I’d suggest we’ve also lost perspective.

The highest grossing movies, at least within the generation of Judd Apatow—the current Socrates and Aristophanes rolled into one of our era, at least in America—are rife with what pass for jokes, mainly about reproductive and excretory body parts, acts of coitus and oral/sexual contact, and put-downs. Yet all of these, plus sarcasm (which is irony, an absolutely useless mode on social media, without the benefit of your higher brain function) and slapstick, are strictly prohibited on Facebook. Try them, see how fast your “friends” shut you down.

As a consequence, we spend some part of each day on a virtual version of Soma (Google or Wiki it, look under Aldous Huxley and his novel Brave New World), assuming we have fallen prey to the need to stay in touch via Mark Zuckerberg’s jejune, if not wholly ill-adjusted, notions of what constitutes the proper means of maintaining meaningful personal relations with other humans whose contact we value. That these relations are eviscerated by the unspoken and unwritten etiquette of Facebook contact (unless it is wholly private—sending messages one-on-one does beg the question of whether Facebook is the best vehicle for communication in this form) goes without saying. We “speak” to one another in a different way than we do in person (persuade yourself otherwise if you like; if you are truly mindful of what you are saying and to whom, and at the same time mindful that there is likely a larger audience, you will say it, whatever it happens to be, with, shall I say, a little less juice—otherwise consider the possibility that you have a need to demonstrate to others just how caring, sweet, and civilized you are).

You may be completely in control of the various channels of communication you have open to you, depending on the audience, and more power to you. There’s no doubt Facebook serves some need. Even as significant a cynic as I am cannot argue with an overall membership of over one-and-a-half billion people, who use Facebook daily a half-billion at a time. Whatever the need, Facebook fills it. I note with some rue that Zuckerberg has organized a consortium of like-minded enterprises to extend the fundamental benefits of Facebook to the other five billion people in the world. The initiative (with several B-players in supporting roles, and a giant called Samsung also on board) is called internet.org [http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9241768/Facebook_s_Zuckerberg_wants_to_connect_the_rest_of_the_world]. However, the insidious effects of Facebook are not to be denied, and the results have only started to come in from research that substantiates just what social impact this particular channel of networking on a grand scale has.

A recent study, that received some (but, in my opinion, not enough) attention from the University of Michigan concentrated on the effect of Facebook use on college-age adults. In brief, here is the abstract of that study:

“Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook. Yet, whether Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time is unknown. We addressed this issue using experience-sampling, the most reliable method for measuring in-vivo behavior and psychological experience. We text-messaged people five times per day for two-weeks to examine how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Interacting with other people ‘‘directly’’ did not predict these negative outcomes. They were also not moderated by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

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Du Semaine (Picks of the Week)

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My choices for January 6, 2017

I hope to make this a regular post each week. Please let me know what you think, and what else you’d like to see.

Photography Site du Semaine

Willcocq_photo_detail

Patrick Willocq, Congo Photos

Patrick Willocq, Congo-raised, French Photographer of Africa

Painter’s Site du Semaine

Baker_painting_detail

David Graeme Baker painting (detail), “February”

Website of David Graeme Baker, a native-born South African, raised in Pennsylvania, and now living in rural Maine.

Novel du Semaine

extinction_book_cover

Detail of Book Cover

Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard. The last novel of Ausrtrian author, Thomas Bernhard, considered among the greats of fiction writing in the late 20th century.

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Street Photography 2016

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I have a new photo book. It’s a record of the street photography portfolio I assembled for review by LensCulture, the online photography magazine. It does not include all photos submitted, but includes photos in black & white considered for submission. The submissions were selected from 20 years of shooting in this genre.

I invite you to preview it. It’s available for sale. I purposely set the price to an even dollar amount—the profit to me is less than 25 cents.

Enjoy.

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Who Is Julian Assange, Really?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Julian Assange portrait by Espen Moe

Julian Assange, captured in the wild, By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) via Wikimedia Commons

I found myself this morning in a place I have been before. I was casting about for an appropriate trope, some metaphor, or analogy perhaps, that could most economically sum up a thought on the tip of my tongue and at the verge of my mind.

I had just perused a screenful of Google finds, having searched on Julian Assange and Bernie Sanders. Having been informed that something dire about the latter had been hinted at by the former, I found there was to be no satisfaction as is often the case (with the former) perusing the usual at least vaguely reliable sources—what we’ve come to refer to with a faint air of noble disdain as “the mainstream press.” No matter that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and let’s say The Guardian (the Anglophone’s “Libération”) have been doing a creditable job, at least since the Republican National Convention, of quietly, but still forcibly, holding Trump’s feet to the fire. Most of the stories are, alas, not of the headline grabbing sort where the gist of the story is, in fact, solely in the headline: “Trump Insults God—Where Will He Go Now?” Rather they are of the sort that requires digging, genuine hard-nosed investigative journalism research in the basement files and news morgues and tax filings of the past 40 or more years. But dig up stuff they do.

We can only hope the effect on the electorate, at least around the edges known as undecided voters, will be accretive. In the meantime however, the real juice still flows on sites that largely are self-accredited news organizations. These reside, at the bottom, being bottom-feeders, on the left and right. Indeed, if they checked into the same three-star tourist hotel on the Riviera for the weekend they’d readily get one of those suites consisting of two bedrooms sharing a bath, with a doorway between them that is supplied with a lock, but whose key was lost long since.

The latest news, if it’s to be called that: apparently the somewhat cryptic and amorphous factoid hinted at by Julian Assange back in August (and reported via the same sources, and then either discredited or patently ignored) has been revived in the last 24 hours by way of a timely interview that M. Assange granted to an Austrian news source. He hints, but hints only, saying only that all will be revealed in due course, that, indeed, it’s true that Bernie Sanders was “threatened” in early July sufficiently convincingly by the Clinton campaign that he ended his candidacy, as demanded. The threat is not, of course, clear. One version of the story holds that his wife was threatened with physical harm.

The theme, not a sub-text, but the real topic here, is that this, as Assange has warned us repeatedly, is how the Clinton organization of goons and thugs rolls. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party is apparently, to use a phrase Trump has come to embrace, “a criminal enterprise.” [speaking out of the side of one’s mouth, lit cigar held at the corner of the lips, Groucho-style: “and he oughta’ know…”]

With no shame in the admission, I have to say, once again, I didn’t know what to make of this. However, it did occur to me that there has been perhaps an incremental elevation in what I will call Assange’s mysterious pernicious temperament toward certain targets. His hatred of the Clintons, which he doesn’t deny, is now, if not well documented, at least accepted universally as de facto truth—the sort that will be still only partially uncovered in history texts, using to-be-recently-in-the-future discovered primary sources, of the 22nd century.

So there I was, as I say, on a weekday morning with the day’s non-story, from the paranoia newswires that never stop clattering, puzzled, yet again, with a persistent repetitive topic, the maleficent sheer hatred of one celebrity for another. That it involves global issues of political and economic significance only means that it’s to be pondered with a portion or two of more grave concern than the latest dispatch about the Kimwe/Swift Feud.

Fortunately, my episode of matitudinal puzzlement of the day coincided with my usual duty every other weekday, of assuming stewardship of the dog’s first walk. The blessed imposition of this pleasant duty provided exactly the mental respite I needed to have it come to me, even as I tugged Artemis along, coaxing her, now that she had delivered the first of her excretory performances, to achieve the more, shall I say, solid of these discharges. I wish I could say that my thought arrived simultaneous with her visible relief, but it preceded it, and possibly with even less strain.

I’ve struggled not merely to categorize, not merely to characterize, but to personify the role Julian Assange plays in our lives, I mean beyond the obvious ways the news is free to describe his presence on the world stage: accused rapist, purloiner of secret documents, unrepentant publisher of unfiltered government papers, fugitive on a global scale immured, with a kind of cosmic and comic irony, in the embassy/sanctuary of a former banana republic. No matter what he is accused of: of almost equal unimportance is what, ultimately, he may be found guilty of. These are matters, especially at this point (he’s been living ignominiously in the London Ecuadorean embassy for over four years now), of far greater moment surely to him than, well, at least, to me. What’s more important is the role he plays, insofar as someone like him still can capriciously and, apparently with seeming ease, continually play and have an impact on matters that will, potentially, affect our lives: the quality of them at least, in abstract terms, such as the ethos that pervades.

And then I had my thought as it plopped into my consciousness. Julian Assange is our J. Edgar Hoover.

Same tactics, same tendentious attitude, same presumption of moral superiority (hollow, as it turned out, and always seemed to be: the morality of a hypocrite), the same willingness to destroy reputations, never mind lives, with innuendo and with lies impossible to disprove—access, gained illegally, to “evidence” of the mischief of others, and used more as leverage than as concrete probative facts beyond a shadow of a doubt. The same implacable and undeviating mission to project an essentially paranoiac’s fantasy of a world beset with corruption and evil.

Subsequent to the publication of this blog entry, I learned of this investigative piece, which had appeared a little more than a week before in “The New York Times.” It speaks for itself: Wikileaks and Russian objectives sometimes seem to dovetail…

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Trump, the Democrats and the Khans / Bush and Sheehan

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The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity

There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.

The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.

The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.

It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.

One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.

There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.

I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.

There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.

We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.

The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.

He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.

“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969

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Why not Who is the Question for voting

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Let’s face it. Those of us concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency are making him the target of our worry, fear, and anger (that combination of feelings may have a familiar ring to it). Heedless of what feelings we may have, attention is first of all what Trump wants. He’ll talk about himself endlessly whatever the reason: defensive and bullying if he’s offended, bragging and strutting if he thinks he’s heard praise. And let’s not forget he often mistakes astonishment and disbelief for admiration.

However, accurate renditions of who he is and what he is aside — and he’s a shape-shifter deliberately; those who don’t want to be pinned down are never wholly committed to a point of view; his entire view is himself regardless of all others — Trump himself is not the thing to be worried about. It’s natural to ask, “who would vote for such a man?” As if supporting him were an aberration in the voter. There is even a concession of sorts to the inadequacies of rational judgment for voting for someone so clearly unqualified for the office when supporters of his are asked calmly what it is that makes them think he deserves their vote with regard to specific substantive matters. To a person, they can’t do it.

Rather, I suggest that we are closer to the relevant issues in this election by asking the question no one likes, “why?” Why vote for him? Account for your reasons. Even if indirection must be employed to elicit an honest answer, it’s evident clearly enough.

We have to face the fact, for one, that whatever their reasons or what they think those are, and whatever the absence of sense in doing so, a significantly large number of people will vote for Donald Trump in November. However, even if an even larger number vote for Hillary Clinton and she wins the electoral college vote, even if Trump thereupon goes away — or at worst lingers, like Ann Coulter, as a lunatic fringe icon (and don’t kid yourself, the very day after Election Day, some reptilian impresario will already have a way to cash in on exploiting Trump’s continued presence on “reality” media) — the people who voted for him, our fellow citizens, will not have gone away. Rather, in addition to continuing to simmer with the entirely legitimate corrosive feelings they have about their lives, they will feel betrayed and further disenfranchised as well.

What we should be thinking beforehand, that is, before the election, is the most productive way of getting out a vote in favor of Hillary Clinton. Notice I said, “in favor of.” A vote for anyone else, or not to vote, will not get her elected. Flawed or not, and of course she’s flawed, as was every other president who has served, some more so, some less — and many of them more so, without one-tenth the venomous mendacious opposition she suffers, purely against her person, not her qualifications — she is the only hope of having someone in the White House who will not be an existential threat, not only to abstractions like democracy, order, lawfulness, justice, and equality (in as bad a condition as some of those may be at the moment, we have them) but to real people. To you and to me.

We can begin immediately with the next thing we must do well before election day. However, there are barely more than three months before that day, and it will be a big enough task getting out the sane vote for a sane president and sane productive members of Congress. We can begin now to do the even harder job of learning to understand that as wayward as their choice of savior might be, that there is legitimacy to the complaints of Trump supporters. Assuming he does go away, not only the grievances, but the legitimacy of those grievances will not go away.

The only candidate who spoke consistently and even possibly monotonously, though surely single-mindedly, about those grievances, or a large bloc of them, and their legitimacy was Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t making a strict political appeal. He wanted the support of everyone disenfranchised, despite affiliation, despite any demographic variable, despite gender, color, religion. People in one segment or another, because of the prejudices of other sub-groups and because of the stubborn persistence of fear and subjugation of the other, may suffer more from injustice in society than others. However, it’s clear that save for a very very tiny sliver of our population, we all suffer in some way from the severe imbalance of societal and cultural factors and the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law.

It’s beyond me exactly how we reach the people that otherwise seem so unreachable. Reasoned debate and discussion, however much patience is required on both sides, seems impossible. Even further out of at least my reach is, having reasoned together, how we get the vast majority of all citizens to understand what the best course is to erect a vessel of true equality for all. I was tempted to say “restore,” but I’d have to be partly delusional to think that such a vessel had ever sailed. If I thought I knew how, I wouldn’t be shy in telling, and hoping people would listen.

However, if I did know, or were capable of knowing, likely I would have been in a different line of work for most of my life. Most likely I would still be in it.

I think, in fact, any true success in such a quest lies not with a single individual. Bernie Sanders can tell you. Or Barack Obama. Or, yes, even Hillary Clinton can tell you, there is no single person, or even a handful with that competence or capacity. The almost insurmountable task is going to require most of us. And we will have to participate in some way in excess of our efforts until now.

We start by accepting there are a lot of injured people out there. They are people who will, in other superficial regards, never be like you or me. You don’t have to live like them. You don’t have to accept their taste in the quotidian aspects of life. But you and I, just as they, must accept that there is some common ground that must determine how we regard each other. We must respect each other’s common rights. We must conduct ourselves in a fair and equitable way with respect to those simple, if profound, rights that defined our establishment as a nation. In some ways, some large, some small, those rights have been impeached and stepped on, and they must be resurrected and restored and preserved.

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Nice — The City Where Nothing Happens

Reading Time: 18 minutes

It lives for tourism

Written in August, 2005, and since published as a chapter in my book, Same Difference, published by Bertha Books (available on Amazon). Obviously, without having to say too much, things eventually do happen in Nice, making it impossible to write like this again.

The streets in the Old Town are worn along the paths the visitors take, in packs, in groups, couples and singletons. This wear is most evident where the streets are paved in stone, whether cobbles or whole slabs. The stone has taken on a patina that can only result from untold short lashes from strips of leather the size and shape of, well, the sole of a shoe. Sidewalks have the contours of old river banks or natural terraces on hillsides, stone as smooth as pebbles rinsed by a million tides.

Watching visitors walk is the lowest common entertainment. We in the United States have either lost the ability, or never yet discovered it, to simply sit and watch our fellow humans move about, irrespective of caste, class, social advantage. To the European it is the basic social pastime. In this way, life as a passing parade is metaphor made real.

The modern city of Nice is founded, in many respects, on this notion. Tobias Smollett discovered Nice, its climate, and its Italianate ways, for all intents and purposes, as a potential benefit to the northern sensibility—the hardest to please at that—Smollett’s sensibility: that of the dyspeptic curmudgeon. He unleashed, from the instant of his publication at the end of the 18th century, a torrent of humanity that ran through the streets of Nice, even through different sovereignties, until today.

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, except for the World Wars—especially at critical times, for example, those times when the Axis and the Allies decided to bomb the shit out of each other, going and coming, retreating or advancing, the SS taking particular care to burn bridges, and barns, etc.—Nice has rarely seen a significant drop in tourism.

The longest decline was a kind of interregnum, between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Nice converted itself from a winter resort to one of the most popular summer destinations for Europeans. First it was Western Europe. Now the Eastern Europeans are beginning to make up for shortfalls in tourist business, especially since the advent of September 11, 2001. The better part of half of the Americans who used to come to France simply stopped coming. The American wave began in the 1920s, and with the inflated economy of that period came the sybarites, the sophisticates and the cinéastes. The depression put a temporary end to it. And then the war, of course.

Nice and the Riviera were occupied by the Italians, until they surrendered in 1943 to the dismay of the Nazis, who then had to divert what were dwindling resources to contain the bumptious and unruly French of this quarter. At the end of the war, even with the destruction wrought by the retreating Germans, who plundered and ruined what they couldn’t carry out, tourism began to pick up almost immediately.

The film festival at Cannes, started before the war, established itself quickly as an institution. Thereby the romantic allure of the Côte d’Azur was extended even to the movie-going bourgeois masses of the United States. Reconstruction instigated development, and a boom in housing and tourist destinations attracted more and more Americans (and other Europeans of course). Fact: in the late 50s, the airport at Nice processed barely 495 thousand passengers a year; by 2003 this figure had swelled (along with the facilities) to over nine million annually. It’s the second busiest airport in France, but these numbers stagnated just as the 2000s began.

The denizens of Niçois tourism began wringing their hands publicly about two years later, when they sat up and noticed that the declines had not abated, but were worsening. The vaunted 35-hour work week mandated as strict law eroded even the strictly French portion of the annual summer invasion from the north. With shorter weeks, and with the famous Monday holidays, generously distributed throughout the official state calendar, more and more citizens have elected to take many very long weekends—four day workweeks, and four day weekends. People still have six weeks of vacation, but the four weeks in summer? They stay home, or they indulge in ever greater numbers in another French pastime, little known to the rest of the world. Americans in general, if they have any picture in their minds at all about the stereotypical Frenchman, it is either of the city-wise, ill-bathed, cologne-sprayed sophisticate, or of the peasant farmer, redolent for other reasons; either image is a profoundly ill-informed fantasy about the “other,” but that’s a subject for another chapter, if not a book. The French now go camping. Or, as they say in French, le camping.

Back in Nice, in broader terms, the most conspicuous living remnant of the impact of foreign tourism is one of the most beautiful seaside boulevards, dedicated to the pedestrian, on the planet: the Promenade des Anglais (yeah, the English, that great nation of dapper boulevardiers…), and devoted entirely to watching, if not other people, then the great Mediterranean Ocean as respite. Incidentally, in one of those curious linguistic notes, and despite my parenthetical cynicism just above, I should make clear that for many years “Anglais” was used as a generic term, like Kleenex® for facial wipes, for “tourist,” no matter what their nationality. In this regard, given the mutual antipathy of the British and the French, Promenade des Anglais may be less an honorific distinction than a caution. Sometimes it seems, from the behavior in some establishments in Nice, tourists, especially non-Francophones, are viewed as being about as disposable as Kleenex.  I leave the broader implications of the simile to the reader.

The Promenade is seven kilometers long, well over four miles, and crowded every summer day, and even more so at night. All for the sheer pleasure of watching and communing with, though always at some distance, other creatures. That is unless you are the victim of a near miss by a rocketing and barely clad roller-blader. For all that, recall that when the British discovered and, inevitably, overran Nice (at least so it seemed to the neither fully-French-and-only-barely-Italian natives), they positioned the enclave as a winter resort. Nice, in other words, has proven itself the year round as a sanctuary for people-watching.

One of the great time-killers still, and more precisely, is woman-watching, and more particularly in summer when there are more women in the streets and they are bereft of layers of clothes.

The commonplace to the point of truism—and beyond to cliché—is that French women seem to know innately how to present themselves. It may be true. It is true, of course, but it is no more informative to observe and articulate the thought than it is to observe similarly that French restaurants with any number of Michelin stars (and many with none) know how to make a satisfying presentation of any part of the bill of fare. [American restaurants of a certain caliber imitate this tradition; they will always be followers, as the French precede them by decades, if not centuries.] And as any restaurateur, chef, or woman can tell you, presentation is the main part of the effort. We must work with the meat the lord gives us; how it looks after being prepared is another discipline in art.

The strongest evidence of the innate sensibility of French feminine esthetic is in the young women, who, of course, have the bodies one might expect would best express it. Rather they have the bodies that require the least nuance, artifice or attention. This merely saves them time, I imagine. It makes them absolutely no more and no less alluring than older women even as they enter adulthood, then a certain age, and then well into the late middle years. The inculcated sense of themselves that the culture breeds in French women renders them alluring well into what in other white-skinned countries would be a sloppy nonage. In France, it seems to me, seniors (despicable word) and the elderly (how did an adjective become a mass noun like “cattle?”) are largely undetectable as such.

To digress, I’ll say also: in this context—the hegemony of the white-skinned tribes­—Nice stands as a symbol of a state. It is technically still the Comté de Nice [we tend to forget in daily discourse that a “county,” a political division, derives from the differentiation of one tract, ruled by a count, from another, ruled perhaps by another count, or a duke, or an ancient invention of the chief ruling agent of federation, a king or other national head; thereby we perpetuate largely political distinctions of what we superciliously call “the dark ages”—some 1400 years ago; and we wonder why our politics don’t seem up to the times; I’ll mention further that the term from which “count” is derived, comes, is actually Roman, and so even older]. Nice has seen periodic changes of leadership, rulership, or political affiliation for centuries. Allied to the dukedom of Savoy, and later to the nation-state of Piedmont, and other times to other Italian nation-states. I don’t know if the urge to “present” herself derives from more northerly habits among the gentry, or if women just generally have this instinct.

Nowadays in Nice, the more well-to-do women do serve as a largely unconscious source of humor, at least to these easily amused eyes, and that’s despite the age of any of them. Anyone wise enough to visit Nice in the winter, of which company I count myself, sees a different city. No less the resort—Nice weather is always temperate, if only just so, at its worst. Snow is incredibly rare. The coldest daytime temperatures in winter are in the 50s (Fahrenheit).

Nevertheless, and especially, it seems, on sunny winter days the haute bourgeois sisterhood takes the air, but never without an ankle-length fur, and spike-heeled pumps. Outside of Gstaad, where else and for what reason would they get the chance?


Lunch.

By five minutes to noon tables full of Asians at the most bald-faced of tourist restaurants along the Cours Saleya have tucked into their mid-day meal—half-consumed. Even as the produce vendors of the daily marché make brisk final sales to the natives, so all of the fish portion is gone from the salades Niçoises of bus loads of citizens of Japan, gustily consumed while staff still set banks of surrounding tables with place mats, silver, and salt and pepper service. They have plenty of time to prepare for the noon rush, and can handle getting slammed by a mini-tidal wave of Japanese with a hunger for Italian canned tuna on a bed of mesclun.

God bless the Japanese. They’ll be finished and back to patinating the pavement or filing into their mammoth tour buses long before the city crews have begun to use high-pressure water hoses to clean the marketplace pavement after marché at 1pm. And the rest of us, enjoying a leisurely Provençal meal, will check our pants cuffs to see if we’re getting splashed. We never are.

So, as lunch hour begins, the produce market ends. Throughout the course of the Cours Saleya, lining both sides of the broad courtyard for a distance of perhaps 300 meters (three American football fields plus the distance from home plate to first base), jowl-by-jowl, are restaurants. They alternately offer much the same fare. It’s either seafood, or Italian food, or Italian seafood (to differentiate it from Provençal styles of cooking, which predominate, understandably, no matter what the ingredients).

The nearer the Opera House, at the western end of the Cours, the greater the chance that there is, in the style of clothing stores on New York’s lower east side, “pullers-in.” They carry a stack of cartes, in American, “menus,” somewhat redundantly, as the way is festooned with stanchions and tent cards displaying the bill of fare, and often, if not invariably, in six languages—and if so, it’s a good indicator not to take a table, not because the food is not good, but because it’s only not bad. The translations can be a good laugh, however, though they degrade your perception of the generally commendable food. You won’t likely ever be disappointed in a meal in such places, especially if you make no pretensions to having a fine palate, but you are guaranteed never to be impressed.

Variously, these sidewalk promoters are either the patrons, the owners or, at least, the bosses, invariably men, or they’re comely young women. I always presume the latter are related to the proprietors, nieces, daughters, granddaughters or cousins. I do know their smiles end at their teeth, and they seem, predominantly, to be ill at ease. The men wear impeccably clean shirts, blue or white, opened two or three buttons at the neck, black trousers, sincere hostly smiles, and they are sometimes festooned themselves with what appears to be at least half their net worth in gold, in the form of chains, and rings, and bracelets. What we call “bling.” The women often display, unself-consciously, décolletage. I have never really gotten beyond this to notice if there is a complement of metal adornments.

Another rule of thumb: the less bling, or the less visible cleavage, the better the experience. If the patron is wearing a suit, it’s a white cloth restaurant, and you won’t get away for less than 80 euros for lunch. Though you also will not be exposed to an attempt, however gentle or subtly seductive, to pull you in from the pavement.

The best of these restaurants is perhaps 100 feet from the end of the Cours, which ends at the base of the hill at whose top is Le Chateau, whose presence and grounds are a signature landmark not only of the Old Town, but of the whole city—antedating by some centuries Mr. Tobias Smollett. The restaurant, with no one outside to pull you in, is called Le Safari—the exotic name being, somehow, characteristic. It suggests you will have a different experience, and you do, not merely because of the quality of the food (though it is mainly the quality of the food) and the air of jocularity and camaraderie of the staff, mainly men, and, almost to a man, lifelong professionals. In over ten years of regular periodic visits, and many meals, I have seen few faces change. Perhaps it suggests that the hunt is over. Or, of course, it serves adequately merely as a hip name—nothing about the place suggests even remotely the dark continent, wild felines, elephants, giraffes, or swift-footed cousins to the deer. And particularly not on the menu, which is strictly Niçoise.

I am safe, I think, in my estimation of the place as the best, and not only because of a native presumption. The magazine Saveur thinks so also, having cited the restaurant several times, and naming its pizza as “the second best in the world.” I don’t know whose they consider the best, but I know the pizza at Le Safari, among its many Provençal specialties, is really very good, and I’m not afraid to dispute Saveur were they wrong. I offer no cavil over first and second place.

It also seems a matter of proof of the proposition that Le Safari shows no signs of any consciousness of this designation, though there are framed copies of accolades and encomiums they have received in print. There are also, even more numerous, works of art.

Le Safari is also invariably mentioned in the guides of any worth as one of the places worth a stop in Nice, which is a major restaurant city—as one would expect in a city of 400,000 or so, whose main commerce is tourism. Not a starred restaurant mind you. Not even a restaurant to take note of because of the inventiveness or finesse of the chef. It is merely a place that has very good cooks in the kitchen, very good service staff, and a reliable and invariable menu of Niçois and a smaller number of Provençal classics, wood-grilled fish, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven (a pizza one of whose secrets is the use of a cheese called cantal, from the Auvergne, as opposed to mozzarella).

Not to expound a formal theory, but perhaps to draft a note or two towards such a thing, I think there are maybe three modes of judging what a restaurant is up to, in culinary terms. There are restaurants whose aim is to show distinction through innovation—invariably the chef has a reputation and it is a reputation for concocting new dishes, discovering new ways of combining familiar ingredients, or for merging the techniques and ingredients of cuisines otherwise foreign to one another—so-called fusion cuisines are the latest example of the latter. This is a style particularly prevalent in the United States, where we now see Asian tapas, and where we will no doubt someday see Swedish-Polynesian specialties on offer. More prosaically, perhaps, there are restaurants who offer exemplars (or such is the usual goal) of classic dishes whatever the cuisine—once again, it’s an American type, the steak house, that’s a prime example. Another is, of course, the classic French bistro, whose bill of fare was memorialized long since: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, etc.

Finally, there is the restaurant that cleaves to a cuisine, more in terms of technique than in terms of a fixed menu of classic dishes. Hence we have Mexican, or Japanese, or even French restaurants with a revolving bill of fare. No set list of dishes, but a carte that varies with the season or the source of supply.

In France you often see the phrase on the menu of more serious restaurants, “selon arrivage,” which means, essentially, according to what’s arrived—it could refer to what’s at the market, but often as not it means at the dock. Fish are the least predictable of stocks, and some fish, especially on the Mediterranean, and especially according to the season, are expensive not because they are rare, but because they are particularly elusive and fishermen bring in what they catch. The result in a restaurant is that you will be offered this fish or that, cooked in a manner determined as suitable by the chef or the cook (in concert with the patron) or cooked according to the manner dictated by the design of the kitchen. At Le Safari, which features signs that announce you are dealing with wood-fired grills, to complement those wood-fired ovens, what you get is grilled fish.

It’s only right, as the easiest way to cook a fish, or any piece of meat, is on a grill over an open flame. If you have ever grilled fish, and in particular the whole fish (merely gutted and scaled), you know this is a deceptively simple operation. And so, what is right, in this case, is not always great. At Le Safari, and not in any singular way as I speak of it at such length as an exemplum—as well as speaking of it as the best of breed of the kind of restaurants you find along the Cours Saleya—you get great fish, usually grilled, but often prepared well in other ways. For example the fritto misto (Italian for “mixed fried”), consisting of slices of squid, several shrimp, with heads and tails (and small enough to eat them whole) and a huge mound of what is unfortunately called in the ‘States, “white bait” (that is, the fry of ocean fish, also eaten whole, because the entire thing is no more than an inch and-a-half from head to tail), comprising a tiny masterpiece, and served in a manner that is just short of kitsch. It’s in a scalloped bowl fashioned of a deep-fried crêpe, and garnished with slivers of marinated hot pepper and garlic.

I’ve also had at Le Safari an excellent mille feuille de morue, characteristically Mediterranean. Mille feuille is a term usually reserved to pastry, as it refers to a kind of dough, called pâte feuilletée, wherein the dough is repeatedly folded over on itself and rolled flat again, creating many layers or “leaves” (feuille is a leaf, a mille is a thousand). It is also a generic culinary term, meaning any layered dish. As a dessert, mille feuille is specifically layers of flaky pastry and cream or custard.

Morue is French for cod. However, you will discover that cod is also cabillaud. The same fish. Except for reasons that in some ways take a book to explain the fresh caught fish is cabillaud, and generally it’s the version that’s dried, or dried and salted (like the staple of many Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dishes) and referred to by some version of the Spanish word “bacalao” that the French call morue. Another Provençal classic dish, brandade de morue (also served at Le Safari, but of course) is a divine melange of revived salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and milk, all of which is creamed together to the consistency of very finely mashed potatoes. Brandade de morue is spread on thin toast while still warm and is the food of the gods of the big waters.

Mille feuille de Morue is the same, but re-engineered, and built from many of the same ingredients, yet whole, without the milk, as a short stack of slices of potato interspersed with large flakes of the cod. Simple, toothsome, yet engrossing, and a lesson in the ways that a basic list of components can be combined, and recombined, to bespeak, as I say, an entire cuisine.

Le Safari, though it has its adherents and admirers (and more importantly for the patron, it usually fills up both for lunch and dinner, except in the winter months when, admittedly, sitting outdoors, even in Nice, is not always inviting, though it is entirely possible), and has received its share of favorable reviews, is not in the league of restaurants that garner stars from Michelin, toques from Gault-Millau, and possibly not even olive branches from Guide Gantié. There are several places in Nice that attract the attention of those who have appointed themselves guardians of the French culinary firmament and the constellations therein.

One place in particular is sui generis. Not touristic at all, indeed, it may be anti-touristic, it has an interesting history that is not only, to me, characteristically French for its detailed idiosyncrasies, but generically Niçois. It’s worth the telling.

The name of the place is La Merenda. Merenda is itself a nonce word, a Provençal term, as it is speculated by Jacques Gantié in his guide (elsewhere it is asserted with certitude to be Italian), for another native term: casse-croûte, which in an English-French dictionary means “snack.” You mainly see it on roadside signs, possibly hand-painted, near nondescript places that are often deceptively unnoticeable; you learn which ones to take note of. It’s usually not about snacks at all, as Americans understand them, but about going native to eat. In short, casse-croûte is a wholly informal way of saying, “good eats here.” The word literally means “broken crust” as in, I break bread in this joint with my nearest and dearest; my friends any day of the week, and my whole family in the shade of an oak or a plane tree or an elm (hard durable woods all of them, from long-lived trees giving plenty of shade) on a Sunday afternoon for the big meal of the day.

The reputation of La Merenda was established by the couple who founded it, M. & Mme. Jean and Christiane Giusti. He was a man obsessed with making perfectly a very short list of Niçois classic dishes, all of them concocted of the humblest ingredients: the freshest vegetables (but only certain ones, like squash, tomato, eggplant, onion—the staples of a Mediterranean diet), garlic, lots of garlic, and not just the fruit of the squash vine, but the flower—a bright yellow trumpet with petals of tenacious integrity that stands up to stuffing and frying, salt fish, which is called not morue (though brandade de morue is eminently Niçois), but stockfish—and that’s French, pronounced exactly as it’s spelled in English, and so forth, and I may or may not get to the “and so forth.” There are other dishes, and, true to form when that form is the preconceived notion we have of the French and their willingness to consume with gusto all parts of an animal, these dishes constitute for the American palate adventures in dining. These include the parts at the opposing ends of a beast—calf’s head cheese (not to be outdone in the United States, where this delicacy is shaped around the head of a hog), for which see any compendious cookbook, the feet of young sheep, as well as the lining of their stomachs (known more prosaically as tripe, and better known in Italian recipes as built around the tripes of the cow), though the feet come into play in a dish that finds its roots in Marseilles; in Nice they serve, obviously enough, “tripes à la Niçoise.” To make it succinct, we speak here of the cuisine (if you are still comfortable with this designation of close encounters with ingredients of the third kind) of poor people.

On the other hand, let me just say that the rule of thumb these days (six years into the third millennium) is that you should expect to spend 65 euros per person for a meal and wine at La Merenda. And remember, they don’t take checks or credit cards. The cooking had better be good.

When it came time for M. Giusti to retire he found the perfectly unlikely successor. Dominique LeStanc, as a very young man, had already scaled the Matterhorn of culinary challenges. He wore the toque of executive chef of the kitchen at the most revered of rooms in the most revered of Niçois old guard hotels—the Negresco, in all its fin de siècle splendor (and a landmark on the Promenade des Anglais for its instantly recognizable Moorish turret atop the corner entry). The Chantecler (literally “rooster,” which happens to be as well the avian symbol of France) was then a two-star Michelin restaurant (gaining as well, it almost goes without saying, three Gantié olive branches, and as many symbolic toques from Gault-Millau). No one, but no one, would say Chantecler was, and is, not a great restaurant or that LeStanc was not at the top of his particular game or would not stay there indefinitely, given his tender years—he was 36 in 1996 when La Merenda changed hands).

To make a long story short, he threw all this over for a tiny restaurant with barely 24 seats (more precisely stools, not chairs—you fit more people in that way) packed like grilled sardines on too small a plate, on a side street off a side street in the old town, at the gateway to the long stretch of tourist traps. He threw it over to offer, without many variants at his disposal, such refinements as pissaladiére, the Niçois pizza whose topping consists only of what can be best described as a marmalade of onions, cooked so slowly as not to color, and garnished with black olives. So pure is the LeStanc version of this ageless dish it dispenses with the ingredient that gave it its name. Pissala is Provençal (if it is not, in fact, Ligurian, or older) for fish, that is, more specifically, fish sauce, manufactured from fermented fish, anchovies usually. And the pissaladiére at La Merenda has none, no fish sauce, no anchovies—hence it is, in fact, a tourte de Menton. One could go through every dish ever served, through a rotating menu on which only a few of these dishes are mainstays, and describe an equal purity, or a level of fastidiousness and exactitude, not to mention art, in its preparation, as to produce, dish after dish and day after day, the ur specimen of such a dish.

These include head cheese in gribiche sauce, beignets de fleurs des courgettes, pâtes au pistou (or, quite simply, pasta in pesto sauce, except, of course, pistou is pesto on this side of the French/Italian frontier and so it consists solely of basil, olive oil (though the oil for La Merenda is brought in from Liguria, two hours away across that frontier) and garlic: no nuts and no cheese. Shall I continue? I’ll continue.

This concentration on poor people’s food (which happens, at its best, to cost what a corrupt lobbyist can afford to drop for lunch) derives from the characterization universally applied to the “native” cuisine of this modern city-state. All of Provence pretends it is a region of poor people and paysans, farmers or, as the word suggests, peasants (whereas it truly refers only to a native of the many pays that have always comprised the expansive collection of hundreds of them that we call France—pays is usually translated in French 101 as “country,” but it’s mainly one community, possibly a borough or commune, a town, a village or even a hamlet, culturally or geographically distinguished from any other, by language, custom, cuisine, dress—and so a paysan is more accurately a “homie”).

Unemployment is high in France (as it is in all the de facto socialist democracies of western Europe: specifically Germany, France, and Spain, among the most productive economically), and I am sure many people suffer some deprivation.

However, in Nice, for all the well-worn streets and the superficial dinginess that it actually shares with all but the most luxe of communities and towns that make up the Côte d’Azur—amusingly always understood as the playground of the wealthy, especially foreigners, if not in particular the celebrities, the players, and the hordes of essentially anonymous stinking rich—with all the great food, with the fur-clad gentry, the banks of hotels cheek-by-jowl, and the perpetual slow crawl of well-maintained vehicles along the Promenade des Anglais, no one ever appears particularly to be suffering.  But then, how can one suffer in a place where nothing ever really happens?

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I’m Not Walter Benjamin, but Neither is He.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

still looking for permission to write after all these years

Walter Benjamin passport photo

Passport photo [courtesy Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.]

I’m too long in the tooth, which ones I have left, to be coming to these realizations, but I do have to keep reminding myself of certain things. Whenever I feel doubts and uncertainty, which is not a fugitive condition, but a constant presence it seems, it’s always in comparison to the known existence, that is, known to me, of any number of figures in history and the present time—figures I have no particular reason to which to compare myself, suffering as they do so much greater familiarity, if not fame, among a so much greater number of people.

However, what I have always *not* borne in mind, and more recently, having realized for the first time previously and not that long ago, but long enough, that it was so, I remember that in most instances (Mozart is a standout, except possibly in those difficult years when he labored in utter obscurity before he turned six) neither were any of them, I hope, at least not to themselves. When Walter Benjamin wrote or spoke I have no doubt he did so because of the particular ferment of his feelings about having something to say. It’s a condition, variously and infinitely variably experienced no doubt, that any creator, whether thinker, writer, artist, composer, to name just a few, has to be referring to in answering the question, “Why do you create?” The answer virtually invariably is, “because I have to.”

Nothing else has to be said by the likes of me to validate the common wisdom that there’s plenty of stuff that gets done “because it has to” that will never see much of the light of day. A glimpse here and there kindly given by dear ones and friends. The accidental glance by roving interested parties. The demi-perusal by the flaneurs of our culture, always looking for what’s new and engaging—not to mention the hordes who are looking, always looking, merely for something to stave off the lurking beasts of boredom and ennui.

Let’s say Walter Benjamin sat down to write, well, name your pick of what he wrote, and I’ll pick, almost arbitrarily (I just spent a whole four minutes looking it up) an essay, considered one of his more seminal, entitled, tellingly, “The Author as Producer.” However, let me say, I am more interested in his mere writing of it, not, at this time, precisely in what he wrote. It was originally a lecture to a body in Paris, typical of the 30s, called The Institute for the Study of Fascism. He gave it in 1934 when, admittedly, he had already gained some notice and attention for his efforts at assiduous and repeated and frequent publication. That he was interested in gaining a permanent position on the faculty of any institution in Europe, but none was to be given for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the unhappy coincidence in time of his roots producing him when the tide of European anti-Semitism was at increasing flow. However, his prolific outpouring and industrious inquiries were into all manner of what we now call cultural studies, when it was not merely pure philosophy dressed in some vernacular raiment. Neither here nor there in the end. He had to look, to inquire, to think, and finally to write and to speak.

He may have had intimations of the greatness of mind with which he was blessed, and then, as far as I know, he may not. Only Benjamin scholars and biographers would know, or maybe someday will know if they don’t. But if I had to guess, I would guess he suffered in his own way the same doubts and suspicions of self that many of us—I’ll speak, however, only for myself. What I’m driving at, to arrive, finally, at what I’m talking about here, is the matter of allowing himself the permission to continue, to plug, to, in that expression with great currency that to me has grown from being mildly humorous to being loathesome, “power through.”

He never stopped. That is, he didn’t, until he famously did stop, literally, killing himself at the frontier with Spain, in 1940, mid-route on what would likely have been a successful escape from Nazi Europe to the United States. We don’t know why, as far as I know. He had somehow bridged that murky body of water between the living if unconscious need to go forward and the dark shores of hopeless despair. However, I prefer to concentrate on his legacy, and take account of what he wrote in the simple facet of not having stopped himself from writing it because of any other sort of misgivings—if anything they validate the idea there is value in life, and repudiate, or at least turn away from the notion of existential futility and lack of meaning. What we will almost certainly never know if he had in mind specifically the prospect of not being allowed to do what he so clearly was compelled to do.

So, I try to inspire myself by bearing in mind, more and more consciously (until, I hope, it become an unconscious part of me, some species of belief), that I am as free to say what I think and to imagine it has worth of some kind, for me for a start, or why bother, and for others, because there is no sense in imagining that there is no value in anything unshared.

Whatever is done with, and finally thought of, whatever I create, especially whatever I write, is not for me to say, even with the vagaries of testamentary dictates on my part. It’s not within my power, even with the collective acceptance of the constraints of the law and the wishes of the departed, to control whether anything that I assume regularly, day to day, if not minute to minute, to be mine and to be disposed of or preserved as I see fit, will continue in a similar or better state of preservation after I’m gone. Writers have dictated that their work summarily be destroyed on their death (in many instances, already knowing in their lives they have gone unsung and unpublished) and have had these last wishes defied—to our benefit and pleasure. And writers have struggled for recognition, or let recognition and the necessary effort to attain it (as a general rule) go unattended in their lives, only to have their deaths herald an era of widespread if not universal exposure of their work, accompanied with great acclaim and even broader dissemination.

My thoughts are not about longevity or perpetuation, but about the legitimacy of my efforts now, today, and tomorrow, especially if I am inclined to make invidious comparisons—accurate or not is immaterial—with the work of others I admire who I know quite well did, at the time, expect or foresee exposure to a wider audience and studied appreciation. They may have wished for it, hoped for it, despaired over the lack of it, but it never kept them from carrying on, writing and continuing to write.

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