“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, August 09, 2014

thoughts en route



The last time I walked the streets of the Marais, Adam was ten pounds lighter and I don’t know how many unimaginable inches smaller. Today, we strolled him around the territory that will be his later, after we return from Santa Monica: the Notre Dame, the Hotel de Ville, Rue des Archives, the park on the street off Blancs Manteaux. I could feel him getting an excess of the sense of it all: the buildings, gargoyles, statuary, crowds, small sidewalks, streetlife, bridges, river, high windows, store windows – taking it in. “Taking it in” is a phrase that, perhaps, comes from our stone age psychology. Since the 19th century, the instruments that measure the senses have become the template for what the senses are – sensitive recorders – but long before that we felt the activity of the senses, not their passivity – we took in the sensate, the eye grasps, the smell and taste extract and send down into the dark tunnels their discoveries, the touch is everywhere, everything material is a monument to the potential sensation of hands, lips, all the working skin. We come from pillagers, all of us, not from lab assistants, and we are out for swag. To take in means that one has a sort of interior “sack” that can get filled, and that is thus limited, can thus fray or burst. For a twenty two month old, there’s a continual shifting between wanting more in the sack and the sack bursting, at which point the toddler sensibly bursts into tears.
Rationalization comes upon us later, and we blame the idiots driving in cars, the street signs, the government, our loved ones, our co-workers – we pretend that the sack is infinitely elastic. You are very rarely asked, at the job interview, how much sensation you are comfortable with. Funny, that, since it determines, as much as skill, what the job is gonna go like.
There are some changes in the neighborhood, I was pleased to see in my very brief ambit. Namely, a couple of new restaurants and shops, including a bio take out place which I hope is still here when we return.

Now I sit here in the Café Charlot on Bretagne and revel a bit in the gray, somewhat rainy day. I like rainy gray summer days in Paris. Everything seems to revert to Atget black and whites. Is this merely the retro conservatism of a middling man in the upper fifties, treasuring his failed promise as though it were some perverse triumph? Well, duh. But it is also that a real city displays, under different angles of light and different seasons, the concantanations of its infinite possibilities, such as are not found on the list of addresses that guides the postal service.

I’ll end this with two poems, one a poor translation of a Baudelaire poem by me myself, and one – by the same author – written a couple years ago in the summer rain, Sinatraish mood.

Pluviôse,  the whole city on his nerves,
From his overflowing urn pours a grey cold
On the pale inhabitants of the nearby cemetary
And on the mortality of the foggy neighborhoods.

On the windowsill, my cat is looking for a place to lie down,
Ceaseless stretching his thin and mangy body;
The soul of an old poet wanders in the drainpipe
With the sad voice of a reluctant ghost.

A bee drones a lament, and the smoky log in the fireplace
Accompanies the clock, which has clearly caught a cold,
With its falsetto, while in an odorous  pack of cards-
fatal inheritance of some old case of dropsy-

The cute  jack of hearts and  queen of spades exchange
cynical remarks about their defunct affairs.

Not a very good translation. Oh well. I wrote a poem in 2011 that perhaps expresses my liking for rainy paris days better:
The rain mumbles on the terrace
Its histories of reincarnation
While we sit, eating chicken.

It’s good. Your green blouse
Is good. The wine is good.
Have the seals been opened?

The seals of the angel
Whose flaming sword
Seems like a ridiculous affectation

Held against
The warm gut of the world.
Or has apocalypse been expelled

From our private life
As the rain mumbles on the terrace
And I cut into the white meat.



Wednesday, August 06, 2014

cockburn versus berman - party like its 1985

Paul Berman has always been a NYT Mag kinda leftist – it is a leftism that is to leftism what cottage cheese is to Stilton – the former is a delight only to the diet-er, without any of the odors, flavor, or texture of real cheese and,in political terms, the former is only a delight to the neo-lib, rid of any suggestion of price controls or, heavens, a stripped down Pentagon and unilateral disarmament (which immediately leads to Munich, don’t you know!) There’s been some buzz among the usual journalists about Berman’s  “takedown” of Alexander Cockburn in The Newrepublic – which is where cottage cheese goes to die, and be transformed into the sort of rancid stuff that eventually stands on its hind legs and demands that we invade Syria and arm the Ukraine and privatize social security at the same time.

Berman’s article was better written long ago, in a letter to the Nation in 1985, when he pretty much said the same thing about Cockburn in a long complaint that Cockburn had distorted his review of a book about the underground press to make him out to be, in Berman’s words, “a hawk, nearly a felon, virtually Republican.” This is the Berman who went on to become one of the grand supporters of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  

Cockburn, a much wittier and deeper writer, replied to Berman’s letter – in which Berman suggested that the Nation fire Cockburn while remarking that Cockburn’s nasty prejudices were fucking up the atmosphere of amity that joined the New Republic, Dissent, and the Nation in the brave new world of anti-communist, neo-liberal, popular frontism that would go from triumph to triumph if only not held back by persnickety stalinists of the Cockburn type, riding on the back of solid democratic socialist politicos like Michael Dukakis (okay, I made up that about Dukakis – it is in the spirit of the letter). Cockburn answered  with brio and quotes. Berman had thought to preemptively defend himself  by claiming that Cockburn was a misquoter, dropping significant quotes that showed that Berman, too, upheld the red flag and all that. This is what Cockburn wrote:

 For a critic who regularly sticks it to playwrights- as part of his professional duties, Paul Berman seems awfully thinskinned.-Since he’s issued a Sneak Alert, fretting that somehow wriggle free with a crafty response, I had better quote once again the lines from his review
that bothered me. There was no distortion or misrepresentation whatsoever.

Berman first described the fine Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett as “a friend of the North Vietnamese government and a Communist of the worst The nuance there was plainly that any friend of the North Vietnamese government should
scarcely be a friend of reasonable people like Berman and the  readers of the New Republic. That nuance became forthright abuse with the gibe about the of Burchett’s Communism. -Having thus primed his readers, Berman wrote:

“Burchett offered the insight (1) that the United States was opposing a popular movement in, Vietnam, and (2)
that to war against the popular will means to war against the populace, i.e., to make massacre a policy. Yes,
without question, the movement paid in the end for the prestige it accorded the Burchett line:”

I quoted that passage exactly, and rereading it several times in the wake of Berman’s charges of distortion, am assured
that it clearly means whatI  thought it meant. The “insight” that the United States was opposing a popular movement and making massacre a policy is described as “the Burchett line.’‘ This same Burchett has just  been described as a Communist of the worst sort. And when the word “line” is juxtaposed with the word “Communist” in such negative
terms, it impossible to conclude that Berman is bearing witness to the value of Burchett’s analysis.

In his letter Berman actually endorses my reading by saying  that he “acknowledged Burchett’s objectionable flaws . . . and the unfortunate consequences came from them.” .~T he only such consequences that Berman mentions in the article are Burchett’s views on the Vietnamese popular struggle and the U.S. policy of massacre. Berman claims that suppressed the fact that he “praised” Burchett when he said of the movement that it “gleaned from him what
could hardly be gleaned in  the early years of  the war, from the mainstream press.” But  this praise -- scarcely overwhelming since in the early days of the war the mainstream  press was offering no insights whatsoever --is
almost imnediately qualified by Berman’s remark that by 1969 the mainstream press “was conducting investigations into Vietnam somewhat more reliable than those of Wilfred Burchett.”

So all I can do is ask my question again: What was the United States doing in Vietnam if not what Burchett said it was doing? In his letter Berman manages to avoid saying anything on this substantive question, which was the point of my item.

Since Berman accuses me of wider distortion, I may as well say openly that I thought his New Republic article was
carefully tailored to the prejudices of that magazine’s editors. His patronizing account of what he called the “hip underground” went in lockstep with his abuse of any radical 1960s politics, particularly antiwar politics, more challenging than tie-dyed T-shirts and bleed-off graphics. And since he is sufficiently shameless to claim that he
praised the worst-sort-Communist Burchett, I quote what Berman said about the leaders
of the antlwar movement in the late 1960s:

They were still the old crowd of acidheads, Buddhist poets, hippie Maoists, beyond-the-pale comedians, electric guitarists, Third World guerilla warriors, future stockbrokers and religious nuts, plus an unscrupulous conniver or two, and they should have known not to take themselves too seriously.

This kind of language has made Martin Peretz happy ever since he stepped out on his own road to ruin in the late sixties, as I
imagine Berman well knew when he wrote  his review. He and Peretz are of course as one on the- Mideast. That aside, Berman’s own politics  have often puzzled me.  I used to think they tended towards a sort of antiquarian anarchism,  but now that innocuous posture has given way to the safari rig of Bananas Republicanism.

Berman sticks it to Navasky too. My beef with Big Vic centers around opportunism, but of rather different sort. Of course he likes these exchanges on the letters page, for which he doesn’t have to pay  even in the high two figures. I expect him to suggest soon that the title of column be changed to “Letters, cont.” so he’ll get all my services,
including answerin silly letters like Berman’s, entirely for free.”

That is what a free spirit writes like. His brief aside, etching Berman’s persona as a Safari Republican was pretty much completely borne out by the subsequent career – although I think Cockburn was a little too generous re Berman’s motives. Berman was one of the innovators in the trick of presenting these views as those flowing from an unimpeachable leftism.  This is the  contrarian trick  that became a regular schtick at Slate. It is necessary to reference one’s leftism in order to keep that contrarianism up one’s sleeve, otherwise you’ll sink into the stream of all the Weekly Standard lookalikes advocating this or that mass slaughter. To get heard, one has to advocate mass slaughter for the highest humanitarian reasons!

Cockburn’s letter shows, I think, why  Berman so wants to strangle Cockburn’s corpse: the man so maddeningly had his number.




Tuesday, August 05, 2014

at cassis

I woke up about four in the morning. There were still lights glowing in the pines out back. For a while I filled my head with stupid thoughts and worries, and then had the happy idea that this was living besides the point. I found my glasses on the table and being careful not to wake A., I put on my bathrobe and walked out on our terrace and looked beyond the pines to the sea. The lights had finally gone out. I could hear the sea booming. The Mediterranean! Endlessly defaced, defouled, overfished, and still the loveliest thing, its blue the primitive symbol of beauty, before beauty was industrialized, commoditized, reified, and beaten to death in a billion images! And Cassis, too, is in the countryside where they are continually finding grottes where neolithics or perhaps plain lithics painted the walls and did mysterious things, piling up stones in certain ways. I’d read of an underwater cave near here, recently discovered, with wall paintings. One of the first places, then.
Mostly, though, I concentrated on the surge. I listened to it in the silence created by a respite from the cries of the cigales who, during the day, are always buzzing in the trees, and who must be enjoying some form of insect sleep at 4 in the morning. I thought about how it was this surge that went into the first poems, a mantic pursuit of all the sense of the world in the world’s own welling language, which the tongue could feel in its dark, blunt thickness but never speak, freely. It's tied to us, the tongue, and the high goal had to be to untie it a bit, to let it grumble a bit as royally as that persistent water massing against rock. Our nature: a phrase absurd, abused, perverted from the motions that compose it, which meets us, after all the money and the maps, at four in the morning as the air lightens perceptibly moment by moment, dawn just around the corner.
Then I went back and lay close to A.