Tuesday, July 23, 2013


July 23, 2013:

     Every January 1, when I start writing checks dated in the new year, I can't help but remember that I used to wonder whether I would live to see the new millenium. My maternal grandfather died at 63, uncles on both sides of the family had died in their 60s, my father, although he lived to 75, had to retire at 64 due to a "cerebral accident," i.e. one of those little strokes that have no lasting effect but act as a warning signal. I'm now the longest living male in my immediate family. My brother died at 70. I'm well beyond that, and all my ills--I'm knocking on my wood desk here--are minor. As far as I know.

     So here I am, looking back over my extraordinary life, and I am amazed. When I was born the population of the United States stood at 150 million; now it's well over 300 million. Our principal form of entertainment was radio. There were no Interstates, and most roads were two-lane roads, with some exceptions right around the cities. It took us two-and-a-half hours to drive the 60 miles to the Jersey Shore. My mother's aunt and uncle at their shore house still got ice delivered to their icebox once a week. The people next door in Westfield shoveled coal into their furnace to have heat. An ice cream cone was a dime: for two scoops. Nobody in my family, except for one uncle, had gone to college. Children's lives were far less organized; we played touch football, baseball, and the like in our back yards, roamed woods that have now disappeared, and were seldom supervised. Most people my age had never heard of "gay" people; most of us kept our virginity into our very late teens or early twenties; we got married in order to have sex regularly. I tasted my first artichoke at 22, had no idea what Caesar salad was, and balsamic vinegar? Forget it. My parents traveled by plane for the first time in their lives in their 60s, and never went abroad. An electric toaster was their most advanced kitchen appliance, and my father and mother did the dishes by hand every day of their lives. Credit cards didn't exist, and people didn't borrow money if they could possibly avoid it. Telephones were often on party lines, and when you picked up a phone you heard an operator's voice. My own first car, a hand-me-down, had running boards. I walked to school; there were no school buses then. No child seats in the car. No seat belts, for that matter. Nobody had walked on the moon. Nobody had thought that it might be possible to walk on the moon.

     For hundreds of years, for centuries, before my time, hardly anything changed at all. Clothing styles, yes; food, no; mores, no. Finally trains appeared, and that was a major change; then came the telegraph, then electricity and phones, although very few had them for a long time, and they required a lot of infrastructure to spread across the country. Then radio. But change when it did come was slow to come, and developed slowly, and the country I was born into was recognizably the same country, with the same architectural styles, the same pace, the same attitudes, as fifty years earlier. Something like the Internet and the relentless communication it has brought were unimaginable when I was born. How many people use a typewriter any more?

     It's all just extraordinary.  And yet...

     And yet racism persists in the hearts of men and women everywhere, and blind prejudices of all sorts, and we still torture people, and warfare is just as cruel as it has always been, and it is conducted with ever deadlier weapons, and men still rape women at the usual rate, theft, exploitation, and greed are still endemic in the business world, the rich still get richer and the poor poorer and millions of children grow up below the poverty line; genocide flourishes as it always has, the strong still walk all over the weak. Bullying remains common, priests abuse children sexually, and human beings remain a blight upon the earth itself, which nears, if it has not already reached, a point of no return. I had an argument with my brother once, who thought that America was the greatest country ever and that we were living in the absolute best of times; and I said no, America was not the greatest country ever, that that was probably classical Greece, in the time of Socrates, Plato, the great Greek dramatists, the first historians, the first scientific thinkers, and that it was not material comforts that made a country great, it was the quality of life, the quality of thought, the quality of attention paid to life. He failed to see it, but my brother knew very little history and was therefore not able to make valid comparisons between one age, or one country, and another. And I made this argument even though I knew quite well that the Greeks had ordered the death of Socrates because he was teaching Greek young people to think for themselves. Teaching young people to think for themselves is the opposite, by the way, of teaching them to pass tests.

     So yes, it has been an amazing time, and I'm grateful to have lived long enough to see it all happen, and to enjoy some of its benefits. But human beings themselves have not changed, and I'm not sure they can. Yes, we have same-sex marriage at last, we accept homosexuality, or some of us do, and that's positive. But has racism declined? I believe racism will only decline when more and more intermarriage among the races produces more and more light brown people, until they're in the majority; and I believe justice will increase in the land only when the rich and powerful are brought to justice, and I don't see that happening at all; and American politics gets stupider and more polarized every day; and the country only grows more and more unmanageable.

     Call what we have lived through progress if you want. But don't congratulate yourselves. In the end only one kind of progress counts, and that's internal and moral. It has to do with levels of kindness and compassion and a willingness to imagine what it's like to be some other person entirely, someone not like yourself  at all. And that kind of progress remains far too rare.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


July 9, 2013:

     Three months since I've posted a blog. Shameful. I've been busy writing magazine assignments and I've felt the loss; this blog is my comfort and myself, and magazine assignments, while they're fine and often very interesting, do not leave you free to be yourself. But I finished the last one this morning, I've heard from my editor, who's pleased, not to mention prompt, and now I'm at loose ends for a little while. And when that happens, I often turn to TLS.

     Aka the Times Literary Supplement, for those who are not as bookish as I am. It is the best of the big three of book reviews, the others being the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. They constitute my university in a way, certainly my continuing education. They cover all kinds of subjects I'm never going to know much about otherwise and give me enough background information to make my way around them, and they give me ideas, expand my mind, all the hard candy an odd brain like mine thrives on. For instance, in the latest TLS, just arrived, I learned, in the order in which the information came, that Joseph Duveen, the great art dealer, connoisseur, and creator of collections who flourished in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, sold to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Jones of Pittsburgh, for a considerable sum, a very poor copy of a Gainsborough as the real thing. Which means that Duveen was a crook, much suspected over the years but here confirmed.

     And then that Maurice Girodias, publisher of the Olympia Press, the famous French house that first published Lolita and much of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, as well as a great deal of elegant pornography, lost his fortune investing in a restaurant in Paris, La Grande Severine, housed in a basement next to what had been a cemetery, and when they tried to expand they found themselves inconvenienced by having to remove skulls at night, which they dumped in remote sections of the Seine. When they ran out of remote sections of the river, they dumped them in the garbage cans of nearby restaurants.

     Then there's this, in the same review, a story that "Becket's use of deracinated heads in his work may have been inspired by a grisly experiment in which the heads of guillotined criminals were allegedly questioned for several minutes, responding to questions by blinking their eyelids." This couldn't happen, of course, as the reviewer pointed out, although--there's often an although--Camus pointed out in his essay on the guillotine that guillotined heads have been seen trying to speak.

     If you don't find this amusing and refreshing, as well as horrid, you need to look more deeply into the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or those of the aptly named Edward Gorey.

     But the best for me came a couple of weeks ago, when I discovered via TLS that Bloomsbury has just published Vol. 99 of The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, a project that has been ongoing for the last twenty-five years. It just pleased me no end. Scholarship! It's indefatigable. This series translates these ancient commentators into English, most for the first time. The volume in question contains the work of Aeneas of Gaza, his Theophrastus, along with the Ammonius of Zacharias of Mytilene. Hardly names to conjure with, and at first sight it's easy to think, my, what a waste of paper the whole project is. But think about it: what if hidden in this bulk lurk gems of forgotten wisdom, or better yet revealing comments on Aristotle's best-known lost book, the book on comedy that was the twin of his book on tragedy, which I've read and is still read; it's a standard text on Greek tragedy, it's where we get the idea of hubris. The lost book on comedy was the hinge, furthermore, around which the story in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose turned, and I've read that, too, and they made a movie of it starring Sean Connery (whom I'm said to resemble). All knowledge is not equal but it all has value. At first I thought it was a joke that they have begun to publish all the letters of Henry James, which will run to a similar frightful length; it will include notes accepting dinner invitations, or refusing them; perhaps laundry lists; in short, everything left. I have the four volumes of his letters previously collected and think it sufficient. But forty-four volumes? A hundred and forty-four? Well, I suppose so. You never know, if you're a scholar, where you'll find the facts you need to back up an idea or a theory, or guide you down the road you're taking into some arcane subject matter that, although arcane, is also fascinating, and may matter in ways you never suspected.

     TLS, then. It gives me hope. It also gave me the first money I ever made writing, when they published a poem of mine, many years ago. Now they won't publish my poems at all; the poetry editor has told me not to bother, he will never publish my poems. But the late Ian Hamilton, revered on both sides of the Atlantic, was the poetry editor then and he bought my poem, which was called "The French Revolution." Pretty good poem. And to be frank about it, the poems they publish now are generally pisspoor. The fee was one English pound; the check came in U. S. dollars, about three of them. Sweet. And it published a fine full-page review of my last book. How could I not love it? It reveres learning. We fail to revere learning at our great peril.