There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.
Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.
It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).
In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.
In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.
Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.
I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.
With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.
But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.
My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
Jerusalem – The Mosaic Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe In Dormition Abbey Stock Image
What I always checked on arrival was my money. I had left Providence that morning, after the briefest of overnights. It was my parents after all, and I had burned any number of those bridges. I simply didn’t spend any more time under their roof than I had to.
I was 23, a newly minted Master (of the Arts of English Language and Literature, after all), and my own man. I didn’t spend a summer hoarding every penny I could from my earnings as a waiter in the hottest dive on the newest trendy neighborhood on Boston’s waterfront, sleeping nights on the sofa in my buddy’s seedy living room in Allston, to lose it all to a moment of lapsed vigilance.
I stood there in the baggage area of the Austin airport with the cluster of four bags that held all my pathetic possessions worth shlepping. Two hard and two soft, the bags that is. I had cajoled the use of two ancient Samsonites, long out of service, from my father’s museum of such things that he kept in the garage—relics of his sales career. And the two soft bags were of that indeterminate provenance of most households even in the late 60s, households that could boast at least one, never mind two, veterans of the war of diminishing and fading glory and honor, the big one, the just one, W.W. Two. My uncle had served in Europe, and my father kept the home fires in the National Guard, so we had an ample inventory of duffels.
The soft bags were for my clothes, mainly jeans, or “dungarees” in the lingering argot of my childhood, and a lot of tee shirts, and socks, and undergarments of the Jockey briefs variety, and a sweater or two, dubiously included by me, ruefully expecting the worst in the kind of weather I particularly abominated. I long since came to understand it wasn’t the eyes of Texas that were upon you all the live-long day. It was the oppressive heat, which, the cows and the oil rigs aside, was the cultural markers that impressed themselves with a kind of minimalist authority as being emblematic of that enigma known as our second-biggest state. I was old enough to remember the admission of Alaska into the Union, and I still bore the smug superiority only a ten-year old resident of Rhode Island could instill within himself towards the now hapless citizens of what was now an also-ran. What would I need sweaters for?
The capacious unyielding scuffed armor of the hard cases I had reserved for the other, to my mind more precious personal cargo, essentials of far greater utility than scratchy woolen pullovers I would never wear. In one, a cache of books, ponderous tomes that I came to think of as the foundation of any civilized student of literature’s personal library – portable or permanent. There was the monumental History of the English Language of Albert C. Baugh, of course, a cornerstone, if the slimmest of the volumes at a little fewer than 500 pages. There were also multi-volume sets ofanthologies of the literature of England and America, probably published by Norton, which regularly turns them out like economy-sized doorstops for mansions from a brick factory.
Whatever may have been my rationale for packing your fundamental 20 pounds of books in four or five volumes has disappeared in the residue of a haze of pot smoke and alcohol fumes. Likely I wanted to be prepared in case the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas Library happened to burn down, or was lost in a takeover by rebel forces from, I don’t know, somewhere in Central America. All I know is, the damn bag was heavy.
The other suitcase, arguably, was more precious. I had given up my lovingly gathered matched components of a stereo system, and had packed away my sizable collection, begun at the age of 12 of LP records, all for the sake of portability. After weeks of agonizing research and soul-searching, I bought a very compact Sony mini-stereo system, with cassette deck and electronics in one unit, and two matching speakers, all covered in an adamantine faux wood-patterned synthetic with prodigious shock-absorbent qualities, and inspired allegedly by the grain of some exotic rare African species of timber. I regretted giving up the purity of vinyl, especially with the hit of compromise in fidelity of tape cassettes. Which, it’s true, took up perhaps one-tenth the storage space for the equivalent amount of music, but which, to be honest and let’s admit it, sounded like shit. The selection of the recorded material available from any label’s vaults was also quite limited, from the perspective of an emerging connoisseur like myself, but what’s a man to do?
I could have spent more, but I needed my hoarded funds for grim necessities: travel, lodging, tuition. And I did figure on eating occasionally. Though it was hard to tell from looking at me that I paid much attention to such a requirement. I was just shy of six feet (though close enough that that was what I claimed) and I weighed, on a well-fed day, and probably while wet, about 128 pounds. Don’t ask how I managed those four bags through the corridors of the Theodore Francis Green Airport in Warwick, because I don’t recall, but I made it. And so there I stood, pondering how to get to the Holiday Inn, the cheapest temporary quarters I could find on a map, yet still near enough to the campus that I could walk – my preferred mode of conveyance. It was either the luxury of a cab, or the vagaries of overcoming my medieval ignorance of Austin public transportation.
Still flush with my savings, even after shelling out the one-way fare on American Airlines to take me to the loathsome Love Field (perversely named with that infernal brand forever to easterners with ever-fresh memories of the tragedy that occurred in Dallas just six years before my mad dash to get my connecting flight to Austin) and on to my final destination. I had no idea what the coming year would bring, or how or when I would desire retracing my steps, so I figured why piss away the dough?
The cab ride was mercifully brief. I tipped the driver, and waved off the bellhop eager to help me tackle my bags to the front desk. Tips? A working man and a student should tip one of the proletariat when he can barely put a decent copy of Baugh in his suitcase, or flesh on his bones?
The room was thirteen dollars a night, plus miscellaneous charges, and what was I to do? I silently gave myself five nights maximum at this embodiment of chain luxury dens, Kemmons Wilson’s brainchild of accommodations for the common man (already with over 500 locations across the country) to find permanent digs for at least my first semester, and scope out the best places to eat decently and cheap. Not to mention laying out my first semester’s tuition.
The easiest piece of business was enrolling as a doctoral student, the only severe challenge being to prove I was who I said, since at that tender period of my life, I had no driver’s license. As I said, I preferred to walk. But as I recall, my draft card and my birth certificate sufficed. They didn’t even seem particularly interested in my having a local address, since I had a permanent address in Rhode Island, even though it was 48 positions less in the cavalcade of states by size. This stipulation merely meant I was to pay the out-of-state resident’s graduate school tuition, which was a munificent $270 for the semester – an even 200 bucks more than the airfare had been to fly halfway across the country.
It took an additional day to find digs. First I sniffed out the hangout of the graduate students, and given the size of the English department, there was a separate such gathering place, a lounge, just for us. I figured there would be postings pinned up somewhere with all manner of resources. Sure enough, I found what sounded ideal. Just three blocks from where I stood on the campus, on a secondary neighborhood street, was a converted courtyard-style motel. On the second floor overlooking the interior of the court – away from the traffic and street noise – was what was described as a suite, though the complement of furniture listed only one bed. There were two rooms and a separate bathroom.
The rooms stand as a shrine within the galleries of my mind. Basically it was a nice enough layout. The entry gave way to a spacious room that could serve as an area for entertainment and for study, complete with a narrow desk and an even more narrow bookcase. With a partition of the minimal magnitude to qualify as a wall separating two areas of a very large space altogether – it was maybe 300 square feet. Impressive, but I admit, in and of itself the dimensions are hardly the stuff of deep memory. Rather it was the decor that set this domicile apart. My suite remains an everlasting altar of bizarre interior design and decor, never since duplicated or displaced for its negative capability for the invidious. Let me just say, before I describe it, that I loved it in an instant, and immediately decided to take it and seek no possible alternative selections.
The living quarters, from baseboards to ceilings, including the ceilings in fact, were covered, as in over every visible surface except for wall outlets and switches, and the very small number of windows, all on one wall of each room, and all facing the inside court, itself adorned with a dry fountain, clearly long out of service. The covering was foot-square tiles of a thick open-pored cork, dyed a very dark brown, not quite the color of ebony, but darker than walnut. All in all, a den or cave, and clearly always suffused with a kind of sombre Stygian aura, a permanent dusk. The floor, to complete the vision, was covered uniformly with, of course, shag carpeting in an appropriate unobtrusive, essentially unnecessary to clean, shade of a color I will call dun.
In marked, almost blinding, contrast, was the bathroom, of a complementary vastness of space, perhaps ⅔ the volume of the main suite of rooms. Notable was the lack of a door, though the portal was an indented doorway, so not even an oblique view from the bedroom allowed one to see very deeply into what must be designated the bathing and toilet chamber. In here too all surfaces flowed together, every square inch, with no differentiation of surfaces, except for the juncture of orthogonal planes, which is to say, you could detect the corners and seams where floor met walls and, looking higher, walls met ceilings. And every square inch was covered in white ceramic tile, square, of about a two-inch dimension. A waterproof fixture in the ceiling provided all the light needed, as when it was switched on as you entered the effect was instantaneously dazzling. A perfect enclosure for clinical examinations to whatever purpose: dermatologic in nature, lesions, one’s hairline or scalp condition. In one corner was a toilet, with appropriate appurtenances set into the wall. In the other corner along the same wall, a huge industrial shower fixture jutted out with controls beneath it on the wall. Along one perpendicular wall, a sink, with a mirror above it. There was also a ceramic shelf set into the tiles.
Further examination showed a slight incline of the floor from every wall to a significant drain, perhaps six-inches in diameter set into the exact center of the floor. Clearly the room had been designed for optimal modes of efficient cleaning, if not regular sterilization, of all surfaces. More or less at once, and with the mere expedient of a high-pressure hose.
And this temple to my rapidly emerging sense of the pure monastic life I would assume as a scholar, somewhere short of ascetic – there was no facility at all for cooking, though I was told that purchase and installation of an electric cooker of some sort, which is to say, a hot plate, was entirely permissible – would cost me the ascetic sum of 94 dollars a month, payable in advance, with an additional month’s rent as security, though refundable on a satisfactory inspection at departure. I had to sign a six-month agreement to stay, not a lease, and on the terms of the apparently equally bizarre statutes regarding transient lodgings, revokable by either party with sufficient notice.
Short of knowing absolutely no one, though I had the phone number of a friend’s cousin, a resident of Austin and whose name, I swear, was Billy Bob, and who was, to boot, a lawyer, pretty much assuring that I would wait until later in this, my first week, to contact him. In the meantime, I had to pull up stakes, though it was too late to check out that night, my second in Austin, from the Holiday Inn, and somehow transport what were effectively all my worldly goods to my new cell-qua-grotto.
However, before I did, I decided I had done so well in such a short time, far more quickly than my profound state of ignorance on my arrival had allowed me to anticipate, I deserved to treat myself to a celebration. I returned to the grad student lounge to see who I might seek as counsel with such an objective. The lounge, spacious and comfortably furnished, was not exactly bustling, but there were two people conferring in a corner, disposed in such a way, and showing other signs of a kind of familiarity that I inferred at least close friendship. It was man and a woman, neither of them, it seemed, very much older in appearance than I. Both were comely specimens, and as I approached they looked up from their confab, and spontaneously smiled. Which I took for a good sign.
She was Alma, and her sharp, precise features, accented but not overtaken with expertly applied makeup, mainly around her eyes, seemed to accentuate what I took to be a Latina heritage, and in fact, she was an Austin native, the third generation born in the United States, of Mexican immigrants who had arrived around the turn of the century and become citizens. Alma was studying 20th century literature, and was a burgeoning Woolf scholar, as in Virginia Woolf. And she gave every appearance, reinforced by an easy sunny demeanor, that there was little she was afraid of, and least of all Mrs. Woolf. Her friend, and that was all he turned out to be, another second year doctoral candidate, was Peter, who had arrived at UT in part because of the holdings of the Ransom Center at the library, where he had begun to dig into the extensive manuscript collection, mining for a worthy topic for his dissertation. He was leaning to Faulkner, but he wasn’t sure.
They were eager to know what I was doing there – though my east coast roots and ways had somehow announced themselves before I even declared them by speaking. I suggested we discuss it over drinks somewhere. It was about two in the afternoon, and they suggested perhaps re-grouping in the early evening would be more prudent, if not propitious. It was early September and still very hot in the daylight, and by six, the weather would have noticeably begun to moderate. “Have you been to the beer gardens?”
“No Alma. I’ve been almost nowhere. If a beer garden here is what I think it is… sounds perfect.” One of them said, “tell you what, why don’t we meet downstairs at the door to the building and then we’ll walk over to Guadalupe to see what looks good?” And that’s what we agreed to do.
At this juncture it would help I’m sure to point out that for some time in Austin, Guadalupe had been the main thoroughfare of the city, running up and down starting from its northern precincts, and ending to the south, very near the historic old city. Guadalupe is Austin’s Champs Élysées. Its Broadway. Its Market or Broad or High Street. All geographic orientation of any merit starts with Guadalupe.
For a healthy stretch of its length it is bounded by the main campus of the University of Texas, which, it must be pointed out, was (and remains) a very very big school. When I arrived it had upwards of 40,000 students, and its endowment, though it never has rivaled Harvard’s, was the largest of a public institution. Appropriate enough for a state with as much wealth among its constituents as Texas has. And on the side of Guadalupe facing the campus, was every establishment imaginable for all that wealth to be spent in any conceivable indulgence. Whatever you might conjure up as a personal need, it seemed like there was some store that would have it.
The street bustled with activity, and was the constant expression of incredible abundance and easy wealth. A marked contrast to my own condition, mindful of preparing myself to begin squeezing every dollar before relinquishing it. But time enough for that, and cockeyed optimist that I was, I was already in a sense banking on all the funds I had spared myself expending by being so efficient taking care of my needs. I had a roof over my head, cork-lined at that. I had my tuition all paid up, and I hadn’t even entered a classroom. The bubble of a sense of prosperity I could almost swear was, in fact palpable, would expand a bit, as it turned out after I met my new found friends, my colleagues, once I returned from refreshing myself at the Holiday Inn before going out for what Texans considered a hot night out.
At six o’clock Guadalupe turned out to be even more of a mad rush of humanity, on foot, in cars, on bicycles than it had been earlier in the day. The sidewalks on the commercial side were packed with crowds, still in the throes of shopping, and beginning to gather at each of a succession of different places to eat or drink.
It being such a college town, of such immense proportions of an institution, and further the UT Longhorns (“Hook ‘em Horns!”) always a formidable contender in the Big 12 for football supremacy, the natural lubricant of choice was, of course, beer. And the preferred venue for consumption the, as it turns out, but how would I know, being a city boy from Bean-town, was the beer garden. There seemed to be one or two to every block on the long stretch of Guadalupe. Like Munich, only with a drawl.
Each of them, as it turned out, pretty much was laid out according to the same design: a largely nondescript room, capacious enough, but hardly of any significance, just off the street, with a conventional bar along its length, which led one naturally to the multiple doors at the rear of the hall to an extensive, elongated back yard. The first time I entered the beer garden Alma and Peter had chosen I was sure it must be the length of a football field, an illusion propagated by its dimensions, which were much longer than they were wide. There was room for two rows of communal tables that ran parallel the whole length of the garden. There were seats on both sides of all tables, and it appeared at first that all of them were filled, and every other hand held a beer, or a pitcher pouring a glass.
The servers, unremittingly female, carried tray of heroic proportions with a number of pitchers of even more beer, and some number of empty glasses. As it turned out there were menus, but the food, which was edible and abundant, was the least of the attractions, the top two even a fool could quickly conclude were the suds and the gemütlichkeit – the camaraderie, which seemed spontaneous and natural enough, but then heightened and fueled by the endless flow of brewed hops and malt and spring water.
I had a good time, and a lot of beer, but I also learned some things as Alma and Peter and I conversed, sometimes, but not always – as waves of noise seemed to ebb and flow, like the rivers of beer – being forced to bellow in one another’s ear. I learned that after a semester in residence, I would be considered, legally, a state resident, and my tuition would drop to the very meager sum of $75. Not that it mattered, because I was sure to be awarded an assistance-ship once I entered my second year, and this meant not only a stipend for my duties, either teaching composition or a lit survey, but full tuition remission. Life promised to be good.
We ended our evening on a convivial note and promised to look one another up in the next day or two. I decided to walk back to the hotel through the dark night, following the route of the limited access Interstate 35, Austin’s main expressway, eight lanes wide. I learned almost on arriving, that the hotel I had chosen from afar, was only a block from the highway, and therefore easy to find. In many ways, aside from the unforgettable appearance of my temporary home in that gruesome motel, my main recollection is of the vantage I had of the superhighway, just several hundred feet away from me, when I looked out the window of my room at the Holiday Inn.
Starting the next day, in what was left of that seemingly momentous first week, I concentrated on tying things up administratively, and shopping for what few basics I had somehow forgotten to pack, and also to amuse myself by beginning to learn my new home, doing so the best way, on foot. I also expected to have another beer or two before classes started in a week and a half.
With the weekend approaching, I called my former roommate Andy, who was serving his first year of residency as a newly minted doctor at a huge hospital in Houston – not his first choice, but in that lottery you do win, you just don’t always get to choose which prize. He did have the consolation of having gotten newly married, and he and his new bride had easily been able to move to Houston, because she was a nurse specializing in a highly desirable category and had landed a job immediately at Houston General, an even bigger hospital than his.
I was merely touching base, but he was eager to see me, if possible, and I got the impression he was even more lost than I was, absent any immediate friends here in alien territory. He asked if I was free that weekend – which I took as being asked with no irony whatsoever, and we quickly arranged for me to arrive on Friday evening by bus, to spend two nights with them, while I found some way to amuse myself all day Saturday as it turned out that each of them was on a rotation that required a shift during that day.
The ride was uneventful, almost transcending boredom to some new subterranean level of insensibility. The bus was a bus. Houston, I had the impression was a hellhole, but a damp one. I had never been in a place so unrelentingly hot and so unrelentingly humid all at once. I understood, as he had told me over the phone, that everything, but every place that a human could enter for shelter in any form, was air conditioned. This included their high rise apartment, which, I concluded, once they showed me their well-stocked refrigerator, offered every reason for me not to step a foot outside while I waited for them to return from work so we could cook our dinner together and relax.
The question was, what to do with myself. And the answer lay in a fact I have not as yet mentioned.
When I left Providence, I also left behind a girlfriend. A very serious girlfriend. I don’t mean the girl. I mean the friendship, So sick was she at the prospect of my leaving with our future unresolved and indeterminate had made her sick all night, and my father had to minister to her discomfort with various nostrums to settler her stomach while she lay in bed in the den of my parents’ house the night before our departure. It was a tearful parting, and indeed, she told me much later that she was sure as she watched me board my plane that she would never see me again.
She was leaving for her own educational sojourn. Diane was a painter, and her grandmother had given her a commencement present of the cost of a year in Paris, sailing on the SS France from New York, studying with a painter who had a studio and was renowned for his tutorship.
What I remembered while I lay around on the furniture in Andy’s living room not sweating was that she was to leave on the France-America line and she would leave from their dock on such and such a date, and that her whole family, her parents and her brothers and sister, were staying together with her in New York that weekend of departure at the Roosevelt Hotel – and what a fine thing it was, I thought, how suitable, that a hotel named for those with such a redoubtable progressive reputation in the grand liberal tradition of American politics would be accommodating the scion, and his progeny, of a dyed-in-the-wool blue blood family of stubbornly conservative Republicans.
And I needed no recollection at all that that weekend was this weekend, and the inescapable vastness of the distance between me on Guadalupe in Austin TX and the Steamship France at the West Side piers of New York City, not to mention the unremitting vastness of the difference in size between my skinny wallet growing thinner by the day and the bulky billfold of Diane’s dad, always flush as I came to know him.
Suddenly a sense of mission overcame my indolence and burgeoning self-pity. We had had our tearful goodbyes at the Rhode Island airport, it’s true, but I was no overcome by the need to speak to her one more time. Though I didn’t or couldn’t think beyond the urgency of the need to speak in order to formulate whatever it was, precisely or vaguely, I intended to say.
It was early enough in the day on Saturday – she was not scheduled to depart until late in the afternoon – that I figured I could call the Roosevelt and leave a message with my number at Andy’s, and she could call me back if I didn’t reach her directly. I called the operator, as in those daysbefore wireless links to information banks around the world, the phone company still afforded one of the first lines of contact to virtually anyone, as long as you had a name and an address. I got the number of the Roosevelt and called them. Yes, they had a party booked by that name, but the gentlemen had cancelled the reservation on their arrival, and taken his family by taxi to some other indeterminate destination. Sorry, no forwarding address or contact. Casting imprecations on what I already knew to be the capricious habit of indulging his change of whims that initiated what was sometimes a chain of variations in what had been rock solid intentions, I knew the futility of giving in to my anguish. Instead, as cooly as I could, listening to the compressors churning away with a quiet rumble at the base of each window in their sub-let, I plotted my next tactics.
I checked my address book and there amid a jumble of erasures, blots, scratch-outs and random blebs of dried ink, I found my college friend Sheldon’s number, rather his mother’s number, in Brooklyn, and chancing that he would be awake this early, that is 11am on a Saturday, I dialled and he answered. “Shel,” I said, “I’ve gotta’ ask a big favor, but no big deal all in all, and pretty easy.” I explained what I needed him to do, which, essentially, was to travel downtown, after finding out the exact berth at which the France was docked, and find the purser and have Diane paged, and ask her to call me at the number I gave him.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, his voice husky from the chain smoking he did, affecting the habits of a British don, to match the bizarre accent he had long since adopted, largely, as the rest of us imagined, to mask his native Brooklynese, which nevertheless seeped through in the form of an odd diphthong or a broadly accented vowel. Indeed he smoked a brand, hard to come by, and about three times as expensive as American cigarettes, as much as a buck and a quarter a pack, called English Ovals, because they were indeed, fabricated to form an oval shape in cross-section ofvery tightly packed Virginia tobacco. I had been reduced to putting faith in his air of indolent world-weariness and sham Anglican stony indifference. As Gus, our guru of a year ahead of us at school and who had magically and marvelously talked himself into a fellowship to study poetics for his doctorate at Columbia, as well poetry with one of our avant garde gods, Kenneth Koch, once said about Ron: “Not to worry. Behind that mask of cold insouciance and imperturbability, beats the heart of a man who basically doesn’t give a shit about anybody but himself.”
I would have called Gus, but I already knew he was out of town.
I had nothing to do but wait.
I have no precise recollection of how I spent the day, though I knew I couldn’t concentrate to read. I was too wide awake to sleep, and television was out of the question, except to provide the noise and visual stimulation of the mock company it amounted to. Hours passed and by four I had heard nothing. Andy and his wife were due to arrive at about six. At five, I called Sheldon again to see how he had fared in his quest. I imagined he might still be working his way back home by subway to his lair. He picked up the phone on the second ring, and began explaining even before I could ask a direct question. In that etiolated tone of defeat of his, he virtually whined his rationale for changing the strategy I had mapped out. Well you know how crazy it is dockside when these liners are getting ready to depart. It’s wall-to-wall people. You can’t really get hold of anyone, let alone the purser or anyone else that high up. So he had decided it would be more efficient to call the dock and leave a message to be forwarded to Diane when she boarded and got to her stateroom. He reeled off these terms, “dockside,” and “purser,” and “stateroom” like the seasoned world traveler I knew he was not.
For all his tweeds and silk ties and pocket squares and bespoke shoes, and Navy Cut cigarettes, he was as phony as a slug shoved into the slot of a New York Subway turnstile. Beside myself, I could barely muster a thank you for his efforts, and that I’d be in touch. It’s at this juncture that I’ll mention that in the fullness of time Diane came to know Shel, and of course some time or other I had regaled her with this story about our fateful weekend. She also referred to him as Sheldon the Paperweight, though more usually just using the epithet, or more economically, “the Weight.” Have you heard from the weight?
Still anticipating the arrival of my hosts, I finally had a brainstorm, and called the long distance operator, and asked about calling the ship, maybe even ship-to-shore. And as if she handled queries like this all the time, she proceeded to inform me quite efficiently, clearly, and precisely that what I needed to do was wait until the ship had cleared the three-mile limit, which might take awhile as with all departing ocean liners, and have the Transatlantic operator connect with the ship’s operator and arrange to have my party paged to the phone once there was a secure connection. If I could hold she would connect me with the Transatlantic operator to begin to arrange the call. Could I hold? I’ll hold it as long as you’d like ma’am.
The upshot was, I gave the Transatlantic operator all the particulars, and she told me I would then have to wait, as much as two hours after the scheduled departure time, and then she would call me so the connection could be completed and I could converse with my party. I’d get a call after we rang off with the charges.
Andy arrived. We made dinner. We sat and ate it up to dessert, and at about 8:15 the phone rang. Sue answered it, and almost immediately handed it to me. Within thirty seconds I was talking to Diane, with no more sense of why I was calling or what I wanted to say. She answered the phone and I heard the operator ask her if she was who she was, and she said yes, and we talked, with Diane alternately shrieking happily and shouting because it was quite evident they were having a party at her end, and there was some audible continuous mayhem. It was a very happy ship having a very happy launch.
She asked why I was calling and I told her first, almost tentatively, that I wasn’t sure, though I knew I had to speak to her, had to hear her voice, and as I spoke more words came to me and I kept talking, for perhaps five minutes. Then six, and then the next thing I knew I was asking her to marry me, and she shrieked some more, and said yes. And then we exchanged what I supposed were some token endearments. I mean, who knows or is prepared to know what to say in such a moment. And there were one or two actual practical questions from her, simple things among the plague of questions that congested my thinking for the next few days thereafter, but simply hadn’t occurred to me before the phone rang, so to speak. What she asked was, what about your school? What about Paris? Where will we go? And all I could do was assure her there was time to work it out.
And then we did, for sure, ring off. I got up and walked into the living room from the bedroom where I had retreated for privacy. Andy and Sue were sitting quietly having an after dinner drink when I came in. Andy remarked that I had the most amazing look on my face, and asked what was up. So I told them, and they insisted on opening a bottle of champagne they happened always to have in the fridge. And we toasted me, and caroused and made some jokes.
Somewhere along in there the Transatlantic operator called with the phone charges. And then there was not much else to say, so we all went to bed.
It was while I was lying there that I finally remembered a conversation I had had with Diane about our upcoming plans and the variations on excitement entailed with such different destinations as Paris and Texas, I had been to neither, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Diane had been to Paris before and was very excited about the prospect of her return. She also allowed as she hated the idea of Texas. I asked if she had ever been, and she said, no. “Why would I ever want to go?”
I have, in what feels like a harmless way, been enjoying observing passively my wife’s dauntless efforts to learn French, conversational French, on her own, using various brands of the most popular form of self-education tools that exist. I mean, of course, computer-based apps, for smart devices and computers.
They seem mainly to work on the principle of going blah blah blah at you in the language with which you are challenging yourself, and you go blah blah blah back, repeatedly. There are exercises, with recursive quizzes built-in to assess progress, wherein variously you listen to a native speaker (they all claim native speakers, and eavesdropping, sometimes I wonder; I’m not a native speaker so I keep my mouth shut… usually; let’s just say maybe some of them are, like, natives of the docks in the old port of Marseille) and try to decipher what they’ve said, or you try to repeat it, phoneme for phoneme.
Your mastery is measured in various ways, and there is regular, if not altogether constant feedback. You accumulate points, or other rewards, receive praise, and are gently corrected. This is the fundamental paradigm of most of these apps as far as I can tell, regardless of whether they charge you, and most of them try to get you to “subscribe” at some point one way or another. Surprisingly some very good software for picking up the rudiments are completely free – after which, frankly, I would move on to a more efficacious methodology even if it costs a few coins in the currency of your chosen tongue.
What else strikes me about these exercises is that one of the essential requirements of the seemingly universal pedagogy deployed is to come up with a reliable steady stream of stock phrases that somehow simulate (or are meant to) the kind of everyday palaver used by native speakers. The classic example (from my French tutelage back in the junior high school I attended in Providence RI) is the immortal, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.” We pre-adolescents of the mid-20th century were supposed to believe this is the way genuine French people addressed one another, impossible as it was on the face of it to imagine that our real aunts and uncles would behave in this way such that we ourselves would have occasion to declare, boldly and with confidence, “The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.” In case, that is, some interlocutor should inquire of one of us, “Hey kid, where’s your auntie’s fountain pen?”
There was for me the added circumstantial impediment of my having only one aunt, a widow, at best semi-literate, who was, except for the marriage of my father to my mother, not related to my only uncle, a life-long bachelor. Further, given the proclivities, life style, and stated preferences, not to mention a highly introverted nature, of my uncle, I knew it was impossible, should he ever have indulged himself by joining the holy state of matrimony with a literate woman, he nevertheless would never have countenanced his soul mate poking around his stuff, never mind violating the sanctity of his personal desk, which presumably, further, would likely have been in a room, which he would have kept locked, dedicated to the purposes to which one puts a personal desk.
And who used fountain pens any more in that day and age anyway?
Similar antinomies still occur even in the most up-to-date software products it seems. Developers clearly are facing the same struggle to come up with not only credible dialog that is not merely authentic and idiomatic, but similar to real quotidian discourse that might actually occur between real people who find themselves in real situations doing, let’s face it, essentially ordinary things. One of the first revelations of learning a language sufficiently to comprehend most of what’s said within earshot when you happen to be, let’s say, sitting in a café in the south of France next to a married couple from the next town over on what happens to be market day is that, not to put too fine an edge on it, they’re not talking about Proust. Or Mallarmé. They’re not discussing the finer points of Sartre’s thoughts on Nothingness. They’re not amusing themselves exchanging bon mots by way of noting the advances that feminism has made in La Belle France since the days of de Beauvoir. They’re saying the same inconsequential, mundane, homely, and sometimes largely inarticulate things we all do in what passes for conversation about our basically contained, safe lives as we comport ourselves in the unremarkable enclaves of our quotidian wherever we happen to live, and whatever we happen to utter when addressing our intimates.
An additional deficit to these language learning software apps, from my perspective, is, as well, that there’s not much effort given to giving a clear sense except by inference and that blasted continuous repetition of phrases in that stilted scripted language they’re teaching you – which within the specifics of my particular observation is not French, but near-French, Simu-French – about what the cultural norms may be of the societies within which real French is unself-consciously the, pardon the expression, lingua franca of everyone, from the elite to the hoi polloi. Which is to say, there are some ways in which it’s polite to speak to others, especially mere acquaintances and strangers. And let’s face it, there’s no reason to learn French intensively and immersively for casual reasons (though I know there are some otherwise temperate and good-natured souls who pick up other languages as a hobby, with no prospect of ever actually putting them to active use). Not unless you own property in France which you hope to enjoy on a regular schedule of visitation, or you’re ex-patriating yourself for reasons about which it would be certainly a rude and presumptuous intrusion for me to inquire, or you are marrying into a family of exclusively native French speakers and who, your intuition alone so far has told you, are OK kind of people, maybe even your kind, and you’d like to converse in something other than an impromptu sign language plus an awkward mutual but inadequate command of the limited vocabulary of Franglais we all seem to share, plus a lot of smiling while engaged in eye contact of the most earnest sort. Because Franglais is good, maybe, and mainly, to find yourself a toilet in an emergency and for getting ketchup for your frites.
You do want to learn the language so as to reveal some finesse and sensitivity for it, even if your motives are purely touristic however, and intended not only to smoothe your sojourn in a foreign country as a visitor, but to enhance the pleasure of actually being there by having an ability, however limited, to engage with natives in some polite conversation where you might compare views about such matters of universal interest as the weather, or the beauty of the countryside, or the tender yet toothsome je ne sais quoi of the volaille forestiére (chicken breast, hunter style) you ordered with such aplomb and confidence. In short, there are few people insensitive enough or so supremely self-possessed as not to care if they come across as a dork or, worse (though sometimes the sadly stereotypically expected behavior of an American in virtually any EU member country), as an exuberant kind of gorilla with a talent for what resembles the power of intelligible speech.
These thoughts occurred to me today, as I happened to be musing on this on my daily commute to the local bakery, in the context of trying to come up with ways to encourage my wife in her thoroughly successful efforts so far in learning a language using such sometimes tragically impaired tools. Her efforts are heroic and deserve not just encouragement but assistance of a kind based more solidly in the real world of the France and its people with which we have become familiar in an affectionate way through our regular visits.
What I thought, as I encountered, among other things, some of the usual sights along the way, and had to deal on the road with some of the usual impediments one encounters on the highways and byways of rural Provence, was how much deeper would be the experience of gaining mastery of conversational French if it addressed some typical sitations with what someone might actually wish to say to the individuals one encounters randomly, if not serendpitously on such rounds.
So, here are some phrases I came up with, just this morning, that I’d like the neophyte speaker of basic French to tackle. And let them decide how much more fulfilling it is to be challenged by these phrases.
Bicyclists (in summer especially there are many many of them on these country roads and the rules of those roads requires, in fact, that motorized vehicles must honor their right of way – I’ll leave it at that, otherwise my language might get unduly colorful):
“Hey, can’t you and your gang of eight manage to ride single file on this road?”
“I’m not sure you realize this, my friend, but you and your buddy there on the side of the road with no shoulder, having a cool drink of water, are practically invisible in the shade in this blinding sun. I came close to sending you flying.”
“Say, my ancient friend, I know very well you have the right of way, and I must pass on the left at least five feet away from you, but I think if you meander up the hill in the middle of this two-lane road you may be putting yourself in danger. I do worry. So, move over, if you don’t mind.”
Personal Needs (you will quickly note a theme here):
“I am so sorry to disturb you during your cigarette break, especially as you are the only waiter in this restaurant, but I wanted to bring to your attention that your washroom has no toilet paper, or soap. Oh, and you are out of towels.”
“I am sure it is very rude of me to comment, but might you consider putting a sign on your restroom door warning people that there a few centimeters of water on the floor they might wish to avoid?”
“I did want to tell you how fascinated I am to observe that your chef has figured out how to add some crême fraîche to every dish you have on offer.”
“Would it be terribly inconvenient to indicate in the menu – you can even do it only in French – that all of your salads include pork lardons and chicken gizzards? I appreciate these added bits of savory protein, but your portions are so generous, I would be happy to eat only the vegetables.”
Fellow Bewildered Tourists to the Region
“Well now, my good fellow, I see you are a little lost, as you entered the cramped parking area of the bakery in your large luxury car in the wrong direction, and have managed to make it impossible for me, in my little compact rental, and this other stout fellow, a local resident in his tiny van with his dog, to remove our vehicles, even though we have finished our purchases and wish to go home. But I’ll just sit here as I have plenty of time. I am sure you will figure out how to extricate yourself, and good luck my good man, as you do so.”
Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.
What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.
In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.
In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.
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.”
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
So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.
When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.
There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.
According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.
We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…
One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.
Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.
What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.
What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.
I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.
I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.
We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.
What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”
If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.
But (yet again…) wait!
Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?
However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.
Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).
Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.
Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.
Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.
We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.
And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.
By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.
What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.
By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.
My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.
These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.
The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.
The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.
…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.
The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”
In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.
“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.
“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.
We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.
Today, I had the slightly unusual and, admittedly, slightly queasy-making experience of seeing my name set aside in print (if we can call a blog, “print”) for praise, I guess, in a review of the book I have touted here over the past nine months, the collection of food related writing called Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal. It features, among many other contributions, a poem of mine called “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich.” This poem follows a brief reminiscence by the fabled food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, which ends with her aunt’s fried egg sandwich recipe (the exact opposite of mine as it is, as she admits, unchewable and indigestible). The reviewer happened to like Ms. Fisher’s effort, as who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, she attributed it to me. Several commentators chose to add their thoughts, including one who admitted never having heard of me, and several much sharper readers than the blogger noticed striking similarities to what was described as my effort, to the work, justifiably and correctly, of Ms. Fisher.
Whatever the consequences of that, it’s hardly important. But I did find one thing mildly striking. The name of the blog is “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” and is meant, I think, to be resonant with a certain spirit of the age to convey, ironically, an exactly opposite set of sentiments. The women, of course, aren’t bitches, and the books, singled out for praise, are hardly trash. It does leave me wondering yet again what exactly is it that induces women to refer to themselves, to one another, and generically and universally, and I think with an air of bravado, defiance, and rueful humor as “bitches,” whereas any such usage by men—and it is usually so in far more mean-spirited, if not downright misogynistic contexts—is excoriated and faulted to an inch of its life and rightfully. Yet, there’s that usage by women themselves, without the slightest hint that the user of the epithet is aware that this can only encourage it further.
I suggest that the sensibility intent on being hip and au courant sufficient to refer to her sisters in spirit as bitches, as a truculent badge of honor, inviting challenge, has lost its attention sufficiently to make the kind of error, inconsequential as it is, that confused the work of a male poet for an iconic female writer of deathless prose, now considered part of the canon.
I am both bemused and, yet, hmmm, I just don’t get it. Nice review though, full of solecisms as it is.
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