Thursday, April 27, 2023


In the English Common Law

"A cold and depraved indifference," brought to light with all due process and confirmed by a jury of one's peers, sufficed to punch one's ticket to the gallows.

In "No Country for Old Men," Javier Bardem portrays such a felon -- Anton Chigurh, never convicted of his crimes -- with such intensity and authenticity that it would not surprise if the actor's own wife thereafter refused to share a bed with him.  Early in the film, Chigurh carries around a heavy canister with a hose attached to it.  We don't know what it is.  We surmise that it is a prop that helps him to get into places that would otherwise be forbidden to him, like a fake FedEx uniform that might be worn by a petty thief.  But it is in fact a pneumatic captive penetrating bolt pistol, a device designed to kill cows, pigs and calves efficiently, but also humanely, by firing a metal rod into their skulls, a rod that then immediately retracts in preparation for the next hit.

It all comes down to intent I suppose.  Dr. Kevorkian might have such a device in his arsenal in a place like Canada that widely celebrates euthanasia.  He might sign a contract with a dying person, and the contract might authorize him at any time within a prescribed period to approach the person unawares and dispatch him with the device.  The patient would never know what hit him.

A single engineer at Lockheed Martin is credited with the anti-personnel variant of the HIMARS missile, the variant that contains 1000 tiny tungsten balls.  From 50 miles it can land within 20 feet of its GPS-identified target, and its kill range is 200 meters from the impact point.  

When the remains of the troops are brought back to Novosibirsk in simple pine coffins, they are so mangled and co-mingled that they might as well be a bolognese of beef, pork and veal served on Salem Street in Boston's North End.

"A cold and depraved indifference."

Tuesday, April 18, 2023


The Harvesting of the Boomers

It proceeds apace.  Big personalities.  Long and complex lives.  Huge networks of family, friends.  God chooses which candles next to snuff without regard.

Jack Nicholson, now 85, glowers down at us from a balcony in LA, looking for all the world like "Frozen Jack" at the end of "The Shining."

"Don't Fear the Reaper"?  Why not?

Friday, April 14, 2023


Revisiting "My Dinner with Andre" (1981)

My initial reaction, about an hour into my first viewing of the film since its release in 1981, was that it has aged very badly.  Yes, it garners praise even now for its audacious premise -- that people will be engrossed in a two-hour movie in which nothing happens but a couple of friends talking about high-sounding things in a fancy New York restaurant.  But the two gentlemen in question, who have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they were not really playing themselves back then, were playing themselves, or aspects of themselves, and both come across now, at least at first, as insufferably self-absorbed and worse, apparently blind to the sufferings of others on this earth who do not enjoy the privileges of a Harvard education and a life in the theatre.

Wallace Shawn, the "homunculus" of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," laments early in the film that people at parties lose interest in him when he reveals that he teaches Latin for a living.  Andre Gregory examines his relationship with the doorman who guards his building.  Gregory greets him by his first name, whereas the doorman is compelled by cultural convention to call him "Mr. Gregory."  This, opines Andre, manifests a form of "slavery" and represents one more sign of our descent, in 1981, into fascism.  Wally, it's true, professes contentment with the modest life he leads with his girlfriend Debbie, counting the twin blessings of an electric blanket in winter and morning coffee that on most days does not have a roach swimming in it.  But he also says that he is "just trying to survive from one day to the next."

Of the two, Gregory does by far most of the talking.  As in real life, he has recently resurfaced after a long disappearance that was forced on him by a deep personal crisis, an inability to see any value in anything that he was doing, including his work as a director.  He recounts all of his New Age adventures, while Wally alternates between two expressions -- a bemused smile and a look of grave concern.  In the adventures, which include a mock burial alive, Andre almost always ends up crying uncontrollably.  So when he also recounts that after his mother died he found himself in a paroxysm of grief, it seems that everything in his life has been "flattened," the death of his mother no more important than the flowers he encountered in a Scottish forest that may have set him off on a crying jag.  

Further, one wants to ask Andre to paint for us a picture of the new and untainted world to which he aspires.  We doubt that it exists beyond a few hippie experiments; we doubt that we can all bring the Spirit of Woodstock home to our moms in suburbia.

A curious shift in my perspective on the film came over me however around the time when the elderly waiter (played by a European actor who died in 1983) clears the table for espresso.  Shawn, having grown increasingly upset with his friend, engages more aggressively on some of his views, and the conversation turns into a coherent contest between a scientific/materialist view of the world, held by Shawn, and a spiritual/transcendental view held by Gregory.  By the end of the film it seems that Gregory has shaken his friend out of his complacency, that Shawn can see that he is compelled to busy himself with quotidian tasks because, if he quiets his mind, he will be filled with existential dread.  Andre, whose highest goal is authenticity, has succeeded in having an authentic conversation in a most unlikely venue, and Shawn will not soon forget the experience.

Shawn and Gregory are both still alive.  (Gregory is 88.)  It would be a nice experiment to do a sequel to the film.  Inevitably, I think, it would do two things.  First, and notwithstanding what I said about the film redeeming itself, it would point us back towards the characters' blindness to their relative privilege and comfort.  By now, having experienced 9/11, Covid, a Trump presidency and a world-historical war in Europe, our friends would have to approach the world in which we live with more humility and gravitas.  Like the rest of us, they would be beaten down by events; their perspective might be more like that of the European civilians of a certain age who managed to survive World War II than that of elite American theatre artists in 1981.

More importantly, a sequel would have to underscore the extent to which our politics and our culture have crumbled in the two generations that have intervened.  It is clear from their real-life biographies that Wally and Andre will have migrated not to a position flying high above our travails, from which vantage point they can comment wisely and with empathy upon them.  Rather, they will be walled off in the progressive tribe.  In 1981, the "flyover" Americans with rare exceptions did not watch "My Dinner with Andre," but in principle most of them would have seen the two protagonists as amusing eccentrics in the mold of the same Woody Allen.  Now, half of the country would actively despise them for their views, and they would, of course, actively despise the despisers in return.

And what of those views?  How can it be that two such proudly liberal, hyper-educated, sensitive and humane gentlemen in 1981 could have had no space in their capacious minds for the reality of voter suppression, for the coming climate catastrophe, for the necessity of having a black woman at the center of every television commercial, for the sports and bathroom rights of transsexuals?  Shall we indict them retroactively for this profound failure to see?  And now that they do see, has this evolution really moved our country forward on the path to that most important of values -- authenticity?

No, the sequel would be unwatchable.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023


Last Night

I was disabled by a mild spell as I lay in my bed and attempted to get up to relieve myself.  I could not lift my head and I could not figure out where my body was in relation to the floor.  This altered state of consciousness only lasted a few moments, but while it was happening I wasn't entirely sure that I was not entering the Great Transition.  It was not pleasant.

Monday, April 10, 2023


For Every Sin

... there is a "meet" punishment.  

For gross buffoonery, it is to have one's balloon pricked with a pin.  But in extreme cases, a light dagger does the pricking and the belly of the buffoon ... well, you get the picture.

Sunday, April 9, 2023


Richelieu's End

Identifying himself with a persona which was simultaneously princely, sacerdotal, political and literary, Cardinal Richelieu comported himself as though he were a demigod.  But the wretched man had to play his part in a body which disease had rendered so repulsive that there were times when people could hardly bear to sit in the same room with him.  He suffered from tubercular osteitis of his right arm and a fissure of the fundament, and was thus forced to live in the fetid atmosphere of his own suppuration.  Musk and civet disguised but could not abolish this carrion odor of decay.  Richelieu could never escape from the humiliating knowledge that he was an object, to all around him, of physical abhorrence....

Between the rotting body of the actual man and the glory of the persona, the gulf was unbridgeable....That dreadful stench, those worms battening on the living corpse, seemed poetically just and appropriate.  During the Cardinal's last hours, when the relics had failed to work and the doctors had given him up, an old peasant woman, who had a reputation as a healer, was called to the great man's bedside.  Muttering spells, she administered her panacea -- four ounces of horse dung macerated in a pint of white wine.  It was with the taste of excrement in his mouth that the arbiter of Europe's destinies gave up the ghost.

                                                    -- Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

Friday, April 7, 2023


A Madman's Mantra

In the final six months of his life, my father, stricken with an eccentric dementia that emphatically was not Alzheimer's according to Dr. Hughes, his attending, developed a distressing affectation.  Whoever came to see him -- it could be a long-lost co-worker from the River Rouge or it could be his first wife -- he would look the person dead in the eye, grasp a forearm and wrist with both hands and say "Mark these words!"  He would repeat the expression several times, three or four.  But then, with rare exceptions, he would abruptly look away, and his face would collapse into a mask that was without any affect.

The phrase was one that he used not uncommonly, usually in kitchen table debates.  It would be followed by the expression of an opinion or prognostication -- about sports, or winter storms, or the presidential race.

But here, in this odd context, and followed by nothing, the phrase seemed to be "meta;" that is, the only two words that could be "marked" were "these words," and that didn't make much sense.

Or else the ritual had no meaning, which struck me as worse.  It had me thinking, before there was Alexa, before there were sexbots, before ChatGPT, that we are all just wind-up dolls with no agency, and hence with neither merits nor demerits chalked up for us on the Big Blackboard of Life.  This made it harder for me when finally we put the old man in the ground.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023


A Dog's Dream

If dogs can dream, then so can I.  But if dogs dream, then my own dreams have no real meaning, at least none as Freud or Jung would have it.  They do not foretell the future, nor do they lay out metaphorical guideposts for my life.

What they do emphasize, again and again, is my own sense of futility.  There is an icy mountain in the middle of the Cornell campus.  I must reach its summit, but its summit is beyond my power to reach.  I must take a final exam to earn the credits to graduate from college, but I can't find the classroom where it will be held, nor have I remembered even to register for the course.  There is a Greyhound bus, semi-streamlined in the old-fashioned style, waiting at a corner in the Midwest to take me back to Winthrop, but I don't have a dime in my pocket, let alone the entire fare.

And so it came as a pleasant surprise at the Hour of the Wolf last night when I experienced a dream whose narrative represented, you might say, a divine intervention against futility on my behalf.

There was a fictional young woman.  Let us call her W for "the Wastrel."  I had been incurably enamored of her for a long time.  Early on, I made my feelings known in a most straightforward way, but they were resisted in an equally straightforward way.  I pressed harder; her resistance grew.  It became the irresistible force against the immovable object.  And yet we carried on as friends, but seeing each other only from time to time.

As it happened then, I was organizing a very big dinner at my home to celebrate something or other.  To my surprise, W came a couple of days in advance to help me prep for the thing.  

In the quiet morning before, we sat side by side at the corner of the very long table where my guests would soon be dining.  W had fetched a paper -- the densest and thickest edition of the Sunday New York Times that I had ever seen in fact.  We tore through it together, quite happily.  My brother was also at the table, and we tossed him the scraps as we were done with each section.

There, in an instant, I suddenly knew that her resistance to me was simply gone.  It evaporated, and my pressure was released, simultaneously; one did not follow from the other via cause and effect.  There was joy and peace, but something had to be done sacramentally to mark the moment, just as, at the end of Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," a glass of wine in a quiet corner of an otherwise raucous Berlin venue, one frequented by the young and the avant garde at the Fall of the Wall, became a chalice held by the archetypal Man and Woman.  And so at once I reached for her hand under the table and also I met her eyes.  "I was healed, and my heart was at ease."