Monday, November 26, 2012

Manners

It is the constant complaint of older people that younger people have no manners.  This is not a modern complaint, either--the Romans cursed the manners of their children, and complaints about how the young don't know how to behave are a constant in literature.  But clearly, the decline in manners cannot be continuous throughout history or else we would have no manners at all by now and social life would have collapsed.  So there has to have been a fluctuation, a waxing and waning throughout history, and clearly some societies pay more attention to manners than others do.  Americans have always been famous for bad manners since the beginnings of the Republic.  Mrs. Trollope and Charles Dickens both commented on this during their American sojourns, although Oscar Wilde observed that the best manners he ever encountered were among the silver miners of Colorado.   He may have been being facetious, but maybe not.  Manners, in the sense of not wishing to give offense, are typically punctilious in societies where men are armed and ready to use arms to revenge offense.  Examples include the European gentry, the Japanese samurai, and the inhabitants of the Southern United States.   My sense is that actually Americans have comparatively good manners, at the extremes of social interaction.  The British House of Commons is a place of appalling rudeness compared to the U.S. Senate.  Within a particular social context, the risk of paying with life or limb seems to put a capper on untrammeled  rudeness.

Outside that context--the society of gentles, let us say, or a familial or hierarchical structure--manners may vanish entirely and people can behave like brutes.  We are all familiar with societies in which the home or shop is a place of wonderful manners, while out in the street it's dog eat dog.  We should also not confuse bad manners with misunderstanding social mores.  It seems to me that this is the origin of the reputation of Americans as boors.   A famous example: in the saloon, Americans used to (and perhaps still do in certain locales) place a bill on the bar when ordering a drink and let the bartender take the price of each drink ordered out of the ten or twenty, leaving the change, until nothing remained or the customer left, leaving a tip.   When US servicemen tried this in British pubs during the war it was accounted grossly insulting.  Bad manners, G.I's!   

It is the case, however, that cultural sensitivity is not America's strong suit.  That we are made of a mix of cultures seems, oddly enough, to work against cultural sensitivity abroad.   At home we seem to be better than most at living and letting live. When we kill (at least recently) it's personal and not in mobs bent on massacring across ethnicities; although we do kill personally more than any other rich nation.  This may account for the famously good manners apparent in the most violent sections of the nation.

At bottom, manners are ways for people (especially strangers) to interact without causing animosity, distress or hurt feelings, and this requires a certain dissimulation.  You say thanks for the lovely gift even when you hate it, you finish the awful meal with a smile, you ask for the butter instead of snatching it, and so on.   Pushed too far, or course, dissimulation can produce a stifling, rigid, social order.  Polite dissimulation can morph into hypocrisy, and enough hypocrisy presages the doom of a civilization, the familiar examples being ancient Rome, the imperial realms of Europe, and the late USSR.   But from time to time, dissimulation goes out of fashion.  Frankness and self-expression become the prized values, hypocrisy the only sin, and manners are a casualty of such an age.  

We live in such an age.  As the classes become more isolated in reality, we deny the existence of any demand for deference--the clerk is your best pal and calls you by your first name.  Ceremony is drowned, formal relationship is abandoned, casual Fridays encroach on the rest of the week, the untrammeled child becomes the social ideal, and actual children are utterly uncontrolled.  But people can't live like this forever--it's literally inhuman--and the pendulum has begun to swing back.  There is a reason why so many people are reading Jane Austen and watching Downton Abbey.  Men are buying more suits, and the bookstores are full of books of rules.  The cooking craze, with people sitting down for elaborate multi-course meals, is part of this trend, as are those books lambasting American child-rearing practices.

I'm going on about this because my novel is largely about two of the great historical transformations in manners, the one that occurred at the time of the French revolution, when the manners of the ancien regime  gave way to the manners of the revolutionary-Romantic era, and the one where that in turn gave way to the manners of the Victorians.  The central relationship in the novel is between a man who cam of age in the 1780s and his grandson, a product of the 1840s.   Those who lived through the manners apocalypse of the 1960s will undoubtedly feel right at home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Warhol

I read about a big retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I wrote this.

First the idea of beauty dies, but still there survives the belief that a work of art should contain some visual interest, to delight the eye, or move the feelings or stimulate the aesthetic sense.  With Monet, for example, we have the wonderfulness of light, with Renoir we have the joy of social life, with Van Gogh we have the crazy energy that sparkles off living things, with Cezanne we have the fascination with the material world itself, the magic of physical existence.  All this art says, look, look and be changed!  That relict commitment to attract the eye's interest continues in painting through the middle of the 20th century, with slowly decreasing confidence.  Abstract expressionism was interesting to a degree, and was carried on by people with at least some attachment to what had gone before, although we were told then that painting was  not about anything but paint.  Yet there is real energy and interest in, say, Pollack, and it's clear that he descends from Van Gogh, as Picasso descends from Cezanne.  

It was Warhol's genius to discover that, given the state of society and the art market, the requirement of interest was no longer limiting. The energy of artists need no longer be trained by study and practice to entrance the eye.  Quite the contrary: instead, Warhol directed his energy toward the creation of an art that was as boring as it could possibly be, ending with a vast oeuvre, no single item of which is worth the trouble to view.  That is its point.   Rich people buy Warhols and hang them in home and office, but for all the purely visual experience they represent, they might just as well hang notices on their walls stating, "I paid $11.3 million for a Warhol."  Commoditization has reached its apogee.

In this sense, Warhol is as important to the history of art as Giotto or Manet.  It is, after all, a gigantic achievement to have liberated art from the necessity of being interesting.  That said, it still puzzles me why anyone would take the trouble to visit a Warhol retrospective.  Because if art is ultimately about experience, then boredom is the negation of experience.  If you went to a Giotto or Manet retrospective you would have had an experience.  You might be angry or inspired or transformed, but something would have happened to you.  A visit to a Warhol retrospective would, in contrast, actually sap experience; you would have endured a sort of negation.  This is boredom's work, and why we endeavor to avoid it, and why boredom is characteristic of totalitarian regimes--those endless queues for eggs or licenses.  The regime is saying that it exercises total control of your life and can impose boredom at will.  A Warhol retrospective is thus an analog not of a regular exhibition but of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The question then remains why the upper crust of our society should have voluntarily submitted itself to this quintessence of boredom, praising it, lionizing this dreadfully boring man, and paying huge sums for his work.   Perhaps it is because people whose every whim is satisfied and who have no real spiritual existence must make their boredom into a cult, of which Warhol's studied presentation of common crap and familiar photos are the sacramental objects.  And in his boringness, Warhol was undoubtedly sincere, although, of course, sincerity is the least attractive of the saving graces. That he was not a con-man is his tragedy.

 It's often pointed out that Warhol's work descends from Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, an unadorned urinal signed with the name of a comic strip character.  But Duchamp was not sincere.  He was making a joke, the point of which was that if the bourgeois persisted in commoditizing art, art might as well be urinals.  The joke was not got, however, and the urinal now sits proudly in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also a major buyer of Warhol's work, including the famous Campbell's soup can. Another difference, perhaps as important, is that you can actually piss in the urinal, but there's no soup in the can.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Devil Dogs


I see where Hostess Baking has gone bankrupt, a cultural watershed and front page news in the New York Times.  They say that all the molecules in the human body are replaced every seven years, but were that not true, I would be, physically, a monument to the good folks at Hostess. We were a Wonder Bread family, by and large, although unlike many Americans of the post-war era, we were ethnic enough to understand what actual bread tasted like.  But Wonder was the spine of virtually every sandwich I ate while I was living at home, the core of stuffings, the support of party hors d'oeuvres, and (this I believe unique) the main ingredient of the blini my mother served us.  She would cut off the crusts and roll the copious air pockets out with a rolling pin, plop heavily sweetened cottage cheese in the middle, roll it up, dip it in egg and fry it in butter.  Many years later, I tried this myself and found the results disgusting, although at seven I thought they were the food of the gods.   And sadly the same goes for the rest of the Hostess line. Of all the revolutions I've been through over the past half-century, I would guess that the one that makes the most difference to my daily life is the Great American Palate Reformation.

  And what exactly is it that happens to your palate that makes confections you loved as a kid taste like shit now? It can't be just sweetness, because I still like baklava and halvah, which are probably sweeter than Twinkies, but I know that unless Western Civilization collapses and I am among the last survivors sheltering in the ruins of the Twinkie warehouse, I will never consume another Twinkie.   

 Which brings me to the Drake's Devil Dog.  The Devil Dog, some may recall, is (or was)  a velvety brown pastry about the size & shape of a large knockwurst, filled with a sweet white 'creme.'  It has a hole in each end where they shot the creme in.  It tasted rather like a huge soft Oreo.  If you are the vulgar sort of junior high school boy, you can pose with one of them emerging from your fly, and squeeze it, expelling the creme in a jet.  I never did this, but Jerry Tabachnik did.  I swore I would never tell, but I can't bear to keep it on my conscience any longer. NOTE:  If you are hosting a birthday party for 12-year-old boys, eschew the Devil Dog.  Trust me on this.

I refer, of course, to the Old Devil Dog (pre-1960s).  The New Devil Dog is a mere chocolate "cake"sandwich filled with the white ichor of Twinkie fame.  But back in the 1940s, when men were men and we blasted the Luftwaffe out of the skies and taught the Jap he couldn't mess with Uncle Sam and Democracy and the right to vote for the party of your choice without regard to race, creed or national origin, THEN, we had Devil Dogs to match our Nation, no palid Frenchified 'sandwich' but a solid integral tube of filled cake just firm enough to repack the main bearing of the mighty Allis-Chalmers rotary engine so that many's the time a crewman would use 'em to get a wounded Hellcat launched off the flaming deck of the Hornet and back in the the flak-filled skies to snag some more Zeros.  That's the kind of pastries we had then!  Do you wonder the country's gone down the drain?

 In his World War II biography, It Was A Lot Like Croquet, George H. W. Bush describes how he and other Navy fliers would replace the kapok inserts in their life vests with Devil Dogs.  The tube pastries were just as buoyant and (some said) a lot tastier than kapok, providing a welcome snack for our boys after a ferocious dog fight (so to speak) over the Solomons.  Few now recall that the dimensions of the original Devil Dog were just right to serve as supplementary ammo for the 37 mm anti-tank cannon.  Allowed to dry out for a few days, the brick-hard confection made an excellent anti-personnel fragmentation round. Drakes was working on an armor-piercing Devil Dog when the war ended.




Friday, November 16, 2012

Beautiful Losers

I finished reading Beautiful Losers, a novel Leonard Cohen wrote in 1964, and I have to say I'm glad he didn't quit his day job.   It's a period piece, a message from the heart of the 60s, a little Henry Miller, a little James Joyce, a little William Burroughs, a young man's novel; and of course it's mainly about sex. It concerns three people, a French Canadian man, a English-Canadian ditto and an American Indian woman.  All are having sexual relationships with one another, and this triangle is overlain on the story of Kateri Tekakwatha, the Lily of the Mohawk, who was just recently canonized by the Church.  The Kateri story at least is coherent and beautifully told in intense, poetic language.  It's an epic story and well documented by the ever-assiduous Jesuits who converted her.  The connection between the three people humping one another in 1964 and St. K. is a little obscure but as we all knew well back then, everything is connected!

For one example, the first person miraculously cured by the saintly Mohawk was a Captain Du Luth.  Later, a city in Minnesota was named after him.   And who was born in that city exactly 260 years after Kateri died, and who made his debut record the very year that Cohen published his book?  Bob Dylan!  Coincidence?   I don't think so!

Sandy

I've been contemplating recently the astounding fragility of contemporary society.  One walks through the streets of New York on an ordinary day and the place seems geological in its permanence: the great buildings, the ordered streets, the lights and amenities.  And then a little wind, and little water and it becomes barely habitable.  New York seems to have done a remarkable job of cleaning up after Sandy, although the City's confidence appears to have been shaken.  Leaders are now discussing spending real money on surge protection and many have drawn an association between the damage and global warming.

I still find it odd that the people who make a living from fossil fuels have fought so hard to trash the science on which the theory of global warming is based and how strongly so many people throughout the world have been able ignore a fairly simple set of well-established facts.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and the more of it that gets into the atmosphere the warmer the planet will be.  That's as solid as anything in science.  The problems come with determining how much CO2 is attributable to us, what the planet will do with it, what the immediate results of the proliferation will be, as well as the timing of such results.  We rely on models for this information and the models are subject to some error.  What does not appear to be subject to error are the brute facts that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity.

It may be that this phenomenon will not yield to the normal political process.  People throughout the world want cheap power and the life that cheap power provides and they will continue, I believe, to burn coal and oil at present and even increasing scales--in China and India, for example--until the whole thing plays out.  It could get very bad indeed.  We had the big Asian tsunamis and Katrina and various earthquakes over the past decades, but we have no experience with a world in which weather-related disasters are a constant.  People in immense numbers may move away from the shore, and since probably a third of the world's people live in coastal regions, along with many of the world's great cities, it is not a pretty picture.  No one really can get this into their heads, which is why our policy apparatus is paralyzed, not that we have the sort of world-spanning authority we would need to cope with a planetary-scale event.  The earth is one, but the world is not, as we used to say in the sustainable development movement.

There is one cure for global warming that requires no intergovernmental cooperation, however, and that is nuclear war and the nuclear winter that will result from it.  Is there a more frightening concept?

Absent that, I suspect that this will be one of the epochal changes and will affect humanity like the Neolithic, the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions did.   For one thing, I don't see how national sovereignty can survive in its present form.  In fact, maybe the last act of sovereign nations will be to cooperate to stop global warming from doing its worst.

Friday, November 2, 2012

psychopaths: Gone Girl

How thriller writers love the psychopath!   There is hardly a thriller that does not have one of these folks chewing the carpet and spreading woe, and aren't we glad when the hero consigns him or her to an imaginative end?  I suppose psychopathy must be considered a disability (though perhaps one not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act) yet in thrillers psychopaths are always brilliantly competent.  They've been to medical school, they're scientists, politicians, captains of industry, they're capable of fiendish planning, perfectionist in attack and escape, covering all possibilities, confounding the hero who is trying to catch them.

But in real life, the psychopath is characterized not only by lack of empathy and manipulation but also by impulsiveness and lack of self-control.  The limited empathy of psychopaths, which is what makes them so cruel and manipulative, also leads to mistakes.  They can only read people up to a point, and so are prone to errors of judgement.  They have grandiose conceptions of themselves, which also works against self-discipline, and gets them into trouble, from which they try to extricate themselves via increasingly implausible lies. There are a lot of psychopaths in prison for incredibly stupid crimes.  It's also an uncomfortable mode of life, which is why so many of them self-medicate with booze or drugs.  Psychopaths may be cold to the sufferings of others, but they are not without suffering themselves.  On the up-side, psychopaths are typically fearless and aggressively bold.  Some psychopaths even lack the normal startle reflex, and this indeed has been used as a diagnostic sign.  Psychopathy is poorly understood.  We suppose that there are successful psychopaths, but virtually all the psychological study of these people has been carried out on prisoners.  Characterization of the successful psychopath is largely an enterprise of fiction.

I started thinking along these lines because I've just finished reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which features a woman described as a psychopath.  Ms. Flynn, by the way, is a terrific writer, with a flair for describing character and delineating class.  Her prose is taut and witty; she understands how to move a story along.   In her story, Amy, the psychopath, is a beautiful, wealthy woman who marries Nick, a small-town boy making it as a magazine writer in New York.  They live a happy gilded life based on the fraudulent personas they invent, but financial disaster ensues and they move  to Nick's home town in Missouri, where the action of the book largely occurs.  Not to insert a spoiler, but the matter of the plot is that Amy, distressed by an affair Nick has begun, concocts her own disappearance, along with an elaborate plot that implicates Nick as her murderer.  She wants him jailed and executed.

I found the book acutely disturbing, because it is both well-written and utterly false.  This is the problem with being a good writer.  If a hopeless hack like famed author Dan Brown writes poppycock it is no loss; when a good writer does, you wonder why, I mean besides the lure of gold.  Ms. Flynn writes a strong plot because she is not afraid to make her stand clear: that love is a fraud, that it is all manipulation and persona wrangling, that self-giving is a lie.  The only couple depicted as loving is Amy's parents, and their mutual obsession produced their monster of a daughter.   It's the most misanthropic take on the human condition in popular fiction since Patricia Highsmith, another fraudulent presentation of psychopathy.

Now, thrillers are supposed to be preposterous, and we are willing to suspend disbelief in return for the thrill--that's the tawdry deal we make with the reader.  But there are limits.  The decent, chivalrous private eye is a lie, but we accept it, because we can at least imagine that there could be such a person.  But the masterfully plotting psychopath, who fools everyone and gets away with it is out of bounds, at least for me.  It'd be like a multiple amputee winning Olympic gold in gymnastics.   A psychopath might yank a girl off the street on impulse and rape and murder her and he might be able to do this a lot (Ted Bundy, e.g.) but psychopaths never devise plots that would baffle Hercule Poirot.  The very impulsiveness that makes them dangerous always trips them up.

And in fact, the whole genre of whodunits is based on the obvious notion that the more complexity in a plot, the more things can go wrong, because no one is perfect, even (and especially even) perfectionists.  The detective always notices the misaligned wine bottle, the unwound clock, the gun in the wrong hand.  And, to demonstrate the point, in devising her unbreakable scam for Amy, Ms. Flynn leaves holes you could drive a tank through and has to defuse them with hand-waving.  

One of the functions of the thriller in popular culture is to focus our fear of the generalized evil in the world upon one person--the villain--who is defeated.  When the villain is not defeated, as in Highsmith or the Hannibal Lechter books, the thriller becomes a sick joke, a bath in ordure.  There is a vogue for this kind of book in France--think of CĂ©line or Houellebecq--in which the clothing of an excellent style is hung on a rotten corpse.  Gone Girl is such a book and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this too.  I feel badly, however, for the poor, traduced psychopaths.

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