Sunday, August 20, 2017

Friedrich Reck's "Diary of a Man in Despair"

Sometimes the spirits in their wisdom direct one toward a book even though one has never opened it before, and knows it only from the back cover or the description of some online seller, yet they nonetheless assure one categorically that this is precisely the book one needs to read at this particular time and place -- that in those indefinable qualities of mood and sensibility, this is the next book for you. In this case, I knew from the moment that Donald J. Trump was sworn into office, from the instant I realized that future generations of children would see his waxen animatronic visage in Disney's "Hall of Presidents," that I was eventually going to have to read the "Diary of a Man in Despair" of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. This week I have done so, and it turns out once more that the spirits -- the gut god -- were not wrong. Are they ever?

Before going on, however, let me dispose of the obvious caveats. I don't mean by all of this to suggest a direct parallel between our time and Reck's, or between our would-be dictator and his real one. One of the more obvious differences between our two epochs, I suppose, would be that I am able to write all of this openly and publish it instantaneously for any obscure googling wanderer or NSA agent to find, with no legal repercussions, whereas Reck had to stow his mental torpedoes under the earth, as he tells us, in some unidentifiable patch of the woods of his estate, like the corpse of the Marquis de Sade. But I return again to what I said above as to mood and sensibility. I'd challenge anyone of humane leanings to pick up Reck in the summer of 2017 and not feel in some definite way that he is speaking to our time, and our plight.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Another Summer

Another Summer! -- the opening line of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" has been stuck in my head all day, along with the images from the title sequence of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing over which I first heard it. The awful heat, the outrage, the week of headlines of appalling violence from the most diverse sources and places -- all of them having nothing to do with each other in planning and motivation but sharing some quality unmistakably in common -- it is indeed another summer. And alongside the ghastly incidents that we almost expect now to come in bunches -- from the summer of St. Paul, Nice, Dallas and Orlando to our present one of Charlottesville, Barcelona, and whatever else may still be lying in wait for the innocent, before the season is out-- comes something else that also induces a feeling of powerlessness and despair. It is the stale aroma of hypocrisy. Not only the hypocrisy that Rev. William Barber II roaringly pointed out in a Trump administration that kinda-sorta condemned the rallies in Charlottesville when it should really be condemning itself (why do you inspect the mote in your neighbor's eye and neglect the beam in your own? quoted Barber). It is there on my own side too. It is also the by-now predictable yet still dispiriting betrayal of civil liberties principles on the part of those who -- the rest of the year -- portray themselves as their honor guard.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Prosody

Or, "How to Actually Do Anything, Part Two."
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So in our last post we saw how "mid-way upon my life's journey" -- or quarter-way, I suppose -- I found myself completely lacking in anything remotely resembling a technical skill, or any useful art. Until, that is, I realized that I was capable of acquiring some elementary Spanish through evening study. This, as I said earlier, seemed to open up boundless new fields of possibility, but it also filled me with a secret guilt. If it was, after all, so easy, why had I not done this before with countless other fields of human endeavor? What excuse did I have for having spent so much time in perfecting the art of the useless -- that thing I earlier defined: expert generalism, or literary knowledge -- the medium of the "public intellectual" -- which seems always to take over wherever other arts and sciences -- even philosophy -- abandon their last and most remote claims to practicality?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Actually Do Anything: Part One

It's a funny thing, but every eight years or so, thus far in my improbably letter-perfect Eriksonian life journey, I have fallen victim to a mania for self-reinvention. And the weirdest part of all is that these episodes, when they come about, are usually not sparked by failure, but by success. My 8th grade belief that I was suddenly, against all the odds, going to become "cool"... my sudden conviction in my third year of college -- really just a very slightly matured version of the first -- that I was going to become after all a "normal adult" (I didn't realize yet that that's not a thing), with a high-salary job and a house and family in the burbs ("I... choose... a mortal life," I would generally repeat to myself in the ethereal voice of Liv Tyler's Arwen when I was spinning out this fantasy -- signifying in the very act, I suppose, its inherent implausibility). Each of these, I say, was preceded by an epoch of relative achievement.

I notice something else too: that these periodic attempts on my part to kick the goad of innate dorkiness have grown progressively more feeble; and that this last, most recent attempt --the one I wish to describe in this series of posts -- has proven perhaps the most short-lived and outwardly indiscernible of all. But the point I want to make here is, again, that these efforts to shed my boring old familiar self, like a snake sloughing off skin, are never made because I have despaired of achieving that self, or of reaching the perfected state of whatever it is, but because of its very fulfillment and consummation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

K Dramas

When my sister first developed her obsession with K-pop (ahem, Korean popular music, for the uninitiated), she attempted various lines of attack to get me to share in the same fixation. And she wasn't off-base to try. The numerous and heavy-looking defenses of seriousness that I place around myself, when left to my own devices, have all fallen before to the most implausible pop cultural adversaries -- even when I knew at the moment of transgression that it would take me years afterward to purge myself of the dishonor; even when I knew I would have to submit to a stern regimen of Edwardian fiction and entries from the Criterion Collection to wash out the crime; even when it was Desperate Housewives. (As V.S. Pritchett describes his childhood love of the "Greyfriars" school stories (so memorably and sociologically dissected by Orwell), "I knew this reading was sin and I counteracted it by reading a short life of the poet Wordsworth.") But this time, my sister's incursions did not seem to avail, at least for a long while. It's not that the k-pop music videos she showed me bothered or offended me in any way. I was fine to have them exist out there for others to enjoy. I just didn't see that they needed to have anything to do with me.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Goy Troubles

I have a friend who doesn't like Amy Tan at all. Not even one bit. Which doesn't particularly affect my life-- I've never read a word of Amy Tan and don't particularly have an opinion one way or the other. But nevertheless, when he told me this, I felt the inward tremor of guilt and self-doubt. Because my friend is Chinese-American, and when he told me exactly why he doesn't like Amy Tan, I realized that -- as indifferent as I may be to her novels -- there is a vast corpus of material that I do like -- nay, adore -- that could theoretically be held up for the same type of criticism. I refer to the audio archives of This American Life. If this is seeming like a stretch to you so far, well, bear in mind that I have a particularly acute -- well-developed, shall we say -- ability to invent reasons for guilt and self-doubt. Also, keep reading. Maybe this will start to make more sense (though probably not much).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Turist (2014): A Review

I can't stop thinking about Ruben Östlund's Turist (released in some parts of the world as Force Majeure), that long, strained, strange, and glorious 2014 Swedish movie about a marriage on the slow melt during a week-long French ski vacation. Rarely have I just straightforwardly loved a movie as much as I did this, on first viewing. There's nothing I even particularly want to mock in order to start this review off in style, as I usually feel compelled to do even with films I liked (I guess so as to hedge my bets). I can't do it with this one. Pretty much every frame in this thing was well chosen. The movie is painful and devastatingly funny, with the pain perfectly abetting the humor and vice versa.