Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentines Day, 2014

I've mentioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist and author, Douglas R. Hofstadter, several times in this blog.
File:Le Ton beau de
We especially liked (and concurred with) Hofstadter's theory that when two people love each other and closely share their hopes and aspirations over many years, a sort of mind meld takes place, where one sees through the eyes of the other, a condition that even transcends death.  In Ton Beau De Marot, Hofstadter illustrates that theory with his own experiences and reflections after the death of his beloved wife, Carol.

In a later book, Hofstadter expresses his amazement that other scientists did not take on this premise, as if they considered it simply sentimental rather than what actually happens.

It doesn't happen to everyone, of course.  Not everyone is capable.  My posts on other Valentine Days (for instance, at this link) have usually been about the lack of genuine love in this materialistic American society.

There are individuals who carry an infectious sense of love and caring around with them.  They seem always in a good mood, never a bad word to say.  My own wife, spreading good cheer wherever she went, was that rare sort of person.  This is my first Valentines Day since her death, a mere thirty days ago.

But she is still with me and with everyone who knew her, for to know her was to partake of that special sunshine which touched on the eternal.

As Hofstadter argued, love can be like a magic mind meld so that a part of her assumes a transformative place in my own mind.  I look, I listen, and she sees and hears too.  Seleta is still with me on this consciously spiritual level.  She remains the very best part of me.  Still here right now.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Michael York And The Message of Cabaret

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Last night we watched Cabaret with Lisa Minelli and Michael York. We’d never seen it before, at least not all the way through, as we’ve never been Minelli fans and the obvious theme of threesomes and bisexuality has never interested us.

I bought the Cabaret DVD as a result of recently reading:

(1) Jeremy Bernstein’s MOSTLY HE WON: Kubrick, Bobby Fischer, and the Attractions of Chess. In here, Bernstein points out to Kubrick that Joel Grey was not German, as his Jewish-American father was Mickey Katz, who played the clarinet in Spike Jones’s orchestra and “had made some very funny records of operetta warhorse ballads translated into Yiddish.” Stanley Kubrick then says that Cabaret is the greatest musical of all time.

(2) Coincidentally, shortly after I read this, on November 21st, fellow Cormackian Tom Conoboy blogged about Cabaret glowingly at this LINK. Conoboy says,
“This is the glory of Cabaret for me, both the film and the play. Yes, we see the darkness of humanity, the depths to which it can descend. But that darkness is transient. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted barely twelve years. Humanity was restored. Love, humour, lust, companionship will survive, will revive, will reassert themselves. For all the apparent lowness of the lives of the dancers and regulars of the Kit Kat Klub, they represent humanity, glorious, unpredictable, bawdy humanity. And they will win. Always.
(3) I discovered that Michael York, who stars opposite Minelli in the movie, has been fighting amyloidosis, the same disease that my wife is fighting. Here’s a good article on York’s fight to stay alive: “I’ll Never Take Anything For Granted Again.”
Michael and Pat York
Michael and Pat York, from their website

York credits his wife with helping him attain the correct diagnosis–after three years of going from doctor to doctor. That was our own experience too. And I don’t think that we ever would have had a correct diagnosis if I hadn’t gotten involved and harangued doctors for treating my wife’s symptoms instead of looking for the underlying disease. Our GP gave up on her at one point, suggesting that her pain was in her head and recommending a psychiatrist. At which point we changed doctors.

It was finally tentatively diagnosed, not by a doctor, but by an angelic APRN named Debra Lusk, in Elizabethtown. Kentucky.  Her diagnosis was confirmed by the world renown Dr. Merrill Benson at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis.  Apparently people die from this disease all the time without ever having a proper diagnosis.

My wife and I are not ones to take our gift of life for granted. We know that it is temporary, and we treasured each other every day long before the onslaught of this disease.   And we know that this disease is yet incurable, that the median survival rate of this disease is a year and a half. Yet some people live with it for ten years or more, and so we are hopeful. And again thankful for each day.

The song from Cabaret goes,

Start by admitting: from cradle to tomb,
it isn’t that long a stay.

Yes, indeed. It sees the problem, but it doesn’t have the right answer. I can see value in its anti-authority theme, and in its compassion for the Other–ruder forms survive, as McCarthy puts it. Cabaret‘s carnivalesque show is deeply noir, and in that, a great work of art. BUT…

I can also see that the movie is shortsighted in its ultimate message. Cabaret prescribes continued denial, the addiction of distraction, instead of the facing of life’s temporal reality with love, gratitude, and responsibility. That is what Michael York and his wife are facing in their real-life roles.

As are we.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


First, thanks to all for your cards, phone calls, and prayers concerning Seleta's health.

For anyone who hasn't yet heard, my wife, Seleta, was diagnosed with amyloidosis in July.  She is doing relatively well now, in the middle of chemotherapy treatments, pert and positive as usual, always cheerful.  We are grateful for each and every day.

Happy Halloween to everyone.
Seleta and I ran together in this race, years ago.  Sometimes it seems like just a few months ago.

The best links for last year's literary Halloween are at this link:

And, the best Halloween links from the year before are at this link:

The literary Halloween costume of the day is Holden Caulfield, from J. D. Salinger's iconic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
From the web (link to follow)

Stephen Colbert as Holden Caulfield
from this: link

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Is noir a left-wing art form?

This is an excerpt from Barry Graham, from "Noir:  The Marxist Art Form" at this link::
There were rat footprints in the dried lard in the frying pan. Sometimes the rats woke me, but this time I had slept through their visit. They were now a fact of life, like dogs or pigeons.
It was Raeberry Street, Maryhill, Glasgow in 1975. The cleansing department was on strike, and mountains of plastic bags full of garbage were piled in the back courts of the crumbling tenements. The flats didn’t have bathrooms or hot water, just closet-sized toilets.

This was how we lived, but it was not what we read. The most popular books read by children were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels, about a group of upper-class English children who had adventures and solved mysteries. The most popular books among the adults, I think, were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Barbara Cartland’s romances. We kids also liked American comics. I remember standing on top of the midden, pretending to be Superman atop a tall building, yelling, “Up, up and away!” but I couldn’t fly out of there.

It was how we lived, but it was not what we watched on TV. Whether it was Upstairs, Downstairs—a soap about the English aristocracy—or Coronation Street, a soap about working class people in the North of England—there were no rats. There was hot water, and bathtubs. There was no mother of five knocking on a neighbor’s door to ask for help because it was payday and instead of coming home from his job at the butcher’s, her husband had disappeared into the pubs, and would not come home until Sunday. In the books we read and the TV we watched, money—or rather the lack of it—was never mentioned. The characters engaged in their dramas, mundane or life-threatening, marrying or divorcing or fucking or murdering one another without ever discussing rent arrears, lack of food, or utilities being cut off.

That year, the film Jaws was released, and broke all-time box-office records. Because of this, the novel it was based on became ubiquitous, in paperback with the image from the film’s poster on the cover. The film, a masterpiece of suspense, was the standard story of a heroic individual—a police chief, played by Roy Scheider—who wants to close his town’s beach because of shark attacks, but is overruled by greedy officials who want tourist dollars.

But the novel is less about man-eating sharks than the fear of poverty. Brody, the police chief, is struggling to get by. His wife, who comes from a wealthy family, is embarrassed about having married beneath her station, and is so resentful and bored that she has an affair. The reason that the town’s elected officials and business people conspire to keep the beaches open is not because they are evil and greedy and don’t care that people might get eaten by the shark; they are desperate, because they depend on the summer tourist season for their livelihood, and are afraid of losing their homes if the beach is closed.

Although the characters in the novel Jaws had a standard of living that seemed fabulous to me, it was the first time in fiction that I encountered the fear that defined the lives of everyone I knew.

Monday, July 1, 2013

DOUBLE, DOUBLE: The Fates, Addiction, Double Endemity, and Martha Grimes

A little rum will get this affair on its feet.

DOUBLE, DOUBLE: A DUAL MEMOIR OF ALCOHOLISM by Martha Grimes, the justly acclaimed author of murder mystery novels and her son, Ken Grimes.  The doubles in the title can be seen as allusions to the dual narrative of the text, to a double shot, to the chant of the Wyrd Sisters in MacBeth, or to the book and film, Double Endemity.  It is cleverly accomplished, as you shall see from the quotes below.
Double, double, toil and trouble.

Over at Peter Rozovsky's blog (link), he hosted a discussion seeking to define "noir," but the definitions there differ.

True noir, it seems to me, is exemplified especially by MacBeth, concerning power addicts and the temptations of the fates.  These too, are noir, for the stories are of walking shadows caught up in the maze of their addictions, poor players who strut and fret for their entire hour upon the stage, lives of desperation, the sound and the fury.

These are noir because they show the addict's journey into the blackness.

Some people feel that noir is Marxist or at least left-wing and some leftists and buddhists say that it reflects actual life in this material vale.  Not just addictions to money and power, but to such things as causes, soap operas, guns, alcohol, tobacco, promiscuous sex, and drugs.

Martha Grimes says this in her chapter entitled "Double Double Indemnity":

"This, mind you, is what's called "alcoholic" or"addictive thinking."  The whole approach to drinking is crazily mazelike.  You turn left, you turn right, you go along, you go back.'

"Now you--standing outside the maze, having heaps of laughter at the idiot in there who can't find his way out--please note:  The idiot in there doesn't know it's a maze; he thinks this is the Capital Beltway or some other annoying, clogged-up, circular multilaner, but for all of that minor annoyance, it's the only way he can travel.  This kind of thinking can also be called 'denial.'  There are exits from the Beltway, clearly marked; there's an exit from the maze unmarked.  Much harder to negotiate.'

"So, you, standing outside at the exit, yell, "It's over here, stupid.'

"But for the addict lost in the addiction, where's here? . . ."

"Another member of our group is leaving.  He's standing before us, giving reasons for his decision to stop coming to the clinic. . .He says he has his drinking under control now.'

Straight down the line, Walter.

That's more or less what I want to say to him.  It's what Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) says to Walter (Fred MacMurray) in that great film noir Double Indemnity.'

In any well-constructed mystery, there is a sense of inevitability. . .The movie begins with a gorgeous romance into which is interjected something chancy and dangerous, thereby making the romance even more glamorous.  Then they do the dangerous thing together, and it's all downhill from there.'

"I've watched Double Indemnity so many times that I think it's leaking out of my pores as slowly as my last drink.  It's such a beautiful piece of chiaroscuro; the lighting should be distilled and drunk neat.  There's the scene at the end where she's sitting in her living room, waiting for him with a gun; his shadow is thrown on the wall as he stands in the doorway with a gun. . .'

Straight down the line, baby.
Straight down the line.

"After that earlier dialogue, you think, Oh, God, now it's come down to this.  And this is where I see our own Walter, announcing he's quiting.'

The way in which Double Indemnity moves along the track to its inescapable end is the way this fellow will end.  He can handle his drinking, he says.  He's got a plan.  Say, drinking only on weekends.  It doesn't matter.  What he's thinking about now is the taste of that first drink. . ."

"He's Walter.  The bottle's Phyllis.  They're a perfect fit.  The bottle is alive with solace and the fulfillment of desire.  But the thirst is unquenchable.  There is no stop on this train ride until you're over the rail and onto the track, like Phyllis's husband."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident, The Archer, & The Question Mark

An Ox-Bow

Congratulations to Ox-Bow and all of his connections, winners today of the Preakness Stakes.

As luck has it, I was just reading the current issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (May, 2013), which features Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, certainly an American classic:

  • "Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones."
  • "You can't go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it. Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal." - Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
  • Thomas Cox's THE OXBOW (1936)  Note the question mark.

    The ox-bow of the title refers to a geographical phenomenon (where, in the novel, the hangings take place), which has nuances of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.  The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

    It also alludes to Thomas Cox's famous 1836 painting, The Oxbow, which illustrates the division between nature and civilization--at least pastoral civilization.  The oxbow circles creating a question mark between them.  The birds wheel and circle too.

    The division can be seen as Aristotle vs. Plato, or as Apollo vs. Dionysus, or as control vs. anarchy, as men act cowardly in their vain attempt to prove their courage, their manliness.  The mob misappropriates for itself a monopoly on virtuous masculinity and castigates all opposition as unpatriotic weakness and femininity.
    The Ox-Bow of a noose

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Louisville, H. L. Mencken, and The Great Gatsby

    The new movie of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is opening soon and its connections have been making the rounds on the television talk shows.

    Once again, Louisville's historical connections with the novel and its author are in the the news.  See this link, and this one, and this one.  This last week, KET showed a documentary about Newport, Kentucky and its Mafia connections, including the story of lawyer/gangster George Remus--who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby.  Or so they say.

    When I was young, I loved the novel the first time I read it without really understanding why--except I that I could identify with that male narrative voice.  Over the years I've read much of the critical literature on the novel.  Like Lois Tyson's essays, "You Are What You Own" and "What's Love Got To Do With It?"  Indeed, later critical readings had me questioning whether the idea of love in here was a superficial possessive love or genuine unconditional love.

    The movie adaptations are hard for me to watch, despite the eye candy of the different actresses who have played Daisy.  The plot is jarring without the meditative palliative of the prose.  I know the book by heart, and perhaps it is the great clanking inevitability of what happens that puts me off.  The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow movie strikes me as spectacularly beautiful but profoundly sad, a Kentucky Derby party when the favorite pulls up lame and is found to have broken its legs.

    Still, in my opinion, the novel itself is great because it contains the right amount of mature reflection, the right mixture of recalcitrance, universal ambiguity, and human compassion.  It is a much more mature work than This Side of Paradise, which was a young man's novel, witty and clever but less wise, more materialistic than humanistic.

    Predictably, critic H. L. Mencken, who had championed This Side of Paradise, turned against The Great Gatsby.

    From Charles Angoff's memoir:

    "Mencken once asked me to accompany him to a New York hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald was staying.  I looked forward to meeting Fitzgerald, for while I had not taken him very seriously as a writer, I had a persistent curiosity about him.  I told Mencken as much as we walked to the hotel.'

    "As usual, you're crazy, Angoff,' he said.  'If you had said The Great Gatsby was poor stuff I'd agree with you.  There Scott is writing about people he doesn't know anything about.  At best it's only an overlong short story, but This Side of Paradise is really something, my boy, and when your children start shaving you'll realize how right I am.  But by then I'll be in heaven or in a Trappist monastery, and you won't have a chance to apologize.'

    ". . .Fitzgerald greeted us warmly.  He had been drinking and was hardly able to stand up straight.  He tried to embrace Mencken, who was obviously annoyed by this attempt at intimacy.  Mencken then introduced me:  "Meet Angoff, my private chaplain."

    "Fitzgerald and I shook hands.  Mencken then said:  "Don't say anything dirty about the Virgin Mary or call the Pope a dope or discuss Cardinal O'Connell's children.  You see, Angoff is an unfrocked priest and is living with an escaped Polish nun--she smells like a smoked ham--but deep down both of them are still very devout Catholics."

    "Fitzgerald did not seem amused.  He offered us drinks.  Mencken noticed a copy of Spengler's The Decline of the West on a table.  "So you're reading that swill," he said.'

    "That's not swill, Henry," Fitzgerald said.  "That man is a thinker."

    "Bosh," said Mencken.  "You talk like Knopf, who published the stuff, and who probably hasn't read it."

    "Have you?" asked Fitzgerald.

    "Merely glanced at it.  A fellow like me knows when to stop reading.  Isn't he another one of those Socialist swine?"

    "He's no Socialist," Fitzgerald said quietly as he fondled half a glass of straight whiskey in his hand. . .He walked up and down the room, in silence.  Then he said:

    "Henry, I got another idea for a novel going through my head.  Have a lot of it written up.  It's about a woman who wants to destroy a man, because she loves him too much and is afraid she'll lose him, but not to another woman--but because she'll stop loving him so much.  She decides to destroy him by marrying him, but gets to love him even more than before.  Then she gets jealous of him, because of his achievements in some line that she thinks she's also good in.  Then, I guess, she commits suicide but she does it the way all people, all women, commit suicide, by drinking, by sleeping around, by being impolite to friends, and that way.  I haven't got the rest of it clear in my head, but that's the heart of it.  What do you think, Henry?"

    "Well, it's your wife, Zelda, all over again," Mencken said.
    Zelda Fitzgerald

    Fitzgerald sat down, swallowed some of his drink, and then got up and paced back and forth.  Without looking at Mencken, he said:  "That's the dumbest piece of literary criticism I have ever heard or read."

    Mencken said nothing.  Fitzgerald continued.  "You know, Henry, sometimes I think you're no literary critic at all.  I don't know what the hell you are, but you're no critic, that's sure. . .You don't know what a writer goes through, what he fumbles for, you don't know the grace he searches for.  And, goddamn it, you have no compassion.  Of all the times to mention Zelda to me.  Of all the goddamn times to mention her."  He sank into his chair and burst into tears.

    Mencken stood up, muttered, "I'll be seeing you," and he and I walked out.  As we returned to the office he told me, "Scott will never amount to a hoot in hell till he gets rid of his wife."