Friday, January 19, 2018

Who Speaks For Americans?

We live in strange times.

The Democratic Party is holding the federal government funding package in Congress hostage to the Dreamers, who constitute something like .00216718% of the population (allegedly 700,000 individuals, but probably many more uncounted). 

Meanwhile, the Republicans have thrown all their political weight behind the top 1%, to whom they just gave the largest tax break in recorded history. 

What about the other 98.0099783282% of Americans?  

If we live in a country of representative government, who is actually standing up for the rights and interests of the vast majority of citizens? With each party so exclusively invested in tiny minorities, some not even actual American citizens, it does give you pause.

Who speaks for us? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cappy and Sabine

We think of genetics as a science now, not a mystery. 

Plato thought that the "soul" "entered" the body at birth, which was all the Greeks knew of inheritance, and reproduction. 

We now know that inheritance and all characteristics are passed through DNA, in random combinations, which include mutations that subtly alter the progression of the inherited blueprint.  

We acquired these two younger Siamese cats from the same breeder. They were sisters, born of the same litter, of the same parents. 

And yet, you'd never know it from looking at them today. As kittens, they looked much more alike. Both were lightly darkened at their points, and snow white otherwise. But in pretty short order, they diverged. 

Lily Sabine (below) is slightly warm cream color with light grey points. 

Cappucine (below) developed into a classic chocolate point. Cappy (for short) is a bit larger, while Sabine will always be a miniature. Cappy is stronger, and more determined, though less social than Sabine.  

They have different voices. Sabine's is a delicate "mew" while Cappy generally has a vibra-tone, like a cackle. Both are very friendly, and will tolerate being held, but not for very long. Neither is a lap kitty, though Cappy will often settle on your legs in bed. Cappy is an aggressive hunter and chaser, while Sabine is gentler, and perhaps less wild. 

Neither has been fixed, but that's not a problem since our male has been, and none of our cats goes outdoors. 

They're still young, though full grown now. It will be interesting to see if we outlive this latest generation of our family pets, or they us. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winners Circle

In the continuing search for better cocktail mixes, one recent effort stands out, and has therefore been dubbed the Winners Circle. In horse-racing lore, the Triple Crown winner occupies the winner's circle, covered in robes of white flowers, befitting a champion. 

Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner for 1973

Lately, the results of the mixing lottery have been "mixed" but yesterday we hit on a winner. Everyone's taste is different, so each taster much judge for him- or herself. For my money, this is one for the record books. I'd bet it will be a winner for you too.

3 parts golden rum
2 parts grapefruit liqueur
1 part cachaca
1 part fresh lemon juice

Shaken and served up, with a garnish of lemon or lime.

The taste is oddly not unlike a lime-based mix, though there is no lime flavor in it. It is also reminiscent of orange, but there's no orange in it either. Something about the confrontation of grapefruit and cachaca produces this hybrid flavor.  

Taste is a mystery. Everyone's chemistry is just a little different. Vive la difference!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Shit Hole Countries

This week, Donald Trump, discussing new Congressional proposals for immigration policy changes, was reported to have reacted strongly to certain suggested elements that were presented to him, in a private meeting at the White House. In reviewing the policy with respect to Haitians--whose special status as refugees following the catastrophic earthquake there in 2010, was revoked in November 2017, and must return by the summer of 2019--whose protected status was to be extended or granted authorization to allow for citizenship, Trump was reported by some, who were present at the meeting, to have asked "Why do we want all these people from shit-hole countries [i.e., Haiti and nations of the African Continent] coming here?"

Response in the Press and in government was swift and unequivocal. The remark was universally labeled as racist, and condemned as a diplomatic error.

Since Trump's election, his "style" of interaction with the nation, and with the Press, has been unique in the history of the Presidency. Rather than making public announcements, carefully planned and scripted before-hand, he freely ruminates and fulminates on social media ("Twitter"), offering peremptory and inflammatory rhetoric and personal observation with seemingly little regard for the delicate contexts of public opinion, or the world at large. The man speaks his mind unashamedly and carelessly, frequently causing his staff to backtrack and mend fences in the wake of the damage (intended or not) he has created.

There is no doubt that Trump's style of communication is unconventional, though it bears some comparison to the new era of "reality television" and social media, which feeds off of rumor and innuendo. Trump is a new kind of President, perhaps a symptom of the times. One who is willing to offend and shock, sometimes deliberately, as a strategy to create unrest or reaction, or to keep his image and personality constantly before the public eye. 

Trump's immigration policy positions have been pretty clear since the beginning of his campaign. He thinks our policy with respect to both legal and illegal immigration has been deeply flawed, and he's used that position to promote his "base" (supporters). Trump believes in a tightly controlled inflow of foreigners, one based not on "need" and sympathy, based not on racial preferences or perceived obligation, but on more traditional criteria, including fitness, skills, and suitability for assimilation. Over the last half-century, our immigration policies have tended more and more to be based on accommodation of perceived "need," refugee-ism, and conversion of those residing here illegally, in violation of their present or continuing status. 

Trump's question arises out of a sense of frustration, that our immigration policies seem to have become a huge welfare system in which tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people are either given a free ticket to America, or granted amnesty from deportation and offered a pathway to citizenship, despite having flagrantly violated the laws of our country. The tide of public opinion has shifted over this period, from one committed to the fitness of application, to one of adoption and refuge. The question no longer seems to be whether someone might sensibly be expected to contribute to our country, but to be whether someone seems to "need" to escape from their respective country. 

According to figures I've checked on the internet, Haiti is considered the poorest country in the world. Its poverty rate is the highest in the world, and the condition of its population, with respect to public health, education, employment skills, etc., is uniformly terrible. If any nation in the world could quality for shit hole status, it would be Haiti. The magnetic attraction of America to Haitian immigrants must be overpowering. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian immigrant population in America tripled in size. Of that number, nearly 50% subsist here on welfare, and as many as 100,000 Haitians reside in the U.S. illegally. 

The question at hand is, what should our criteria be for American immigration policy, broadly speaking? Should we continue to prioritize our system to accommodate large numbers of refugees, and illegals, and those whom we feel we owe some reparations, in preference to the classic model of candidates who are educated, healthy, law-abiding, trained, least likely to be a burden on society, and who apply legally

Criticism of Trump's remark have focused on its racial aspect, though Trump himself has repeatedly denied a racial component in his attitudes. Certain stories have said that Trump has insulted "countries of color," as if any nation could be so described. Indeed, to insist on such designations seems more racially biased in its assumptions than one focused on traditional models. In the case of Haiti, its population is primarily of African origin. Those who claim "countries of color" as a criteria for policy adjudication, seem to want an immigration policy based on reverse racial preferences, as if we had an obligation to accommodate more "people of color" than so-called "other" racial types. 

There is no doubt that President Trump is rude, and speaks his mind. There is no doubt that he is often ignorant, and even foolish in his behavior and speech. But the point here isn't racism. It's about actual immigration policy, and whether we should continue to adjust that policy to suit models and targets that prioritize race over other measures. 

Reality is often unpleasant. We've had Presidents in the past who spoke bluntly, and sometimes rudely (usually in private). The difference with Trump is that he doesn't care how he's perceived, or he believes that creating embarrassment, or distress, or confusion--even if it backfires or reflects back on him--is his prerogative. 

Frankly, I don't care if he's rude. I've disagreed with almost every program he's advocated, and he's clearly, despite his style and campaign claims, a classic Republican who serves the interests of the rich and big business. But the issue here isn't racism. The media simply has it wrong. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

James Merrill, about whom I wrote in my last blog entry, is not a poet whom I had ever much admired. As an aspiring poet in the 1970's, I knew his books and comprehended his style. I knew vaguely that he came of privilege, and that his highly decorous, highly decorated verse seemed to be carried along on a prosperous negligence--that it belonged to a world I could never properly appreciate, having never had any direct experience of it, and unlikely ever to see it up close, first-hand.

If I couldn't imagine participating in a world accessed through leisure, wealth and social connections, then my appreciation of Merrill's work would forever have a vicarious, excluded quality, like a child who, looking with intense interest upon a toy train behind a department store window, presses his nose against the glass. Literature, though, is one door into the unknown, a medium through which other lives, other milieus, can be viewed, estimated, judged, appraised, or envied or despised. I read somewhere once that "we love all worlds we live in," a fairly pretentious homily at first glance, though the more we think about it, the more intriguing it seems. Some Victorians believed that suffering was its own kind of romantic thrall, a notion you can see in much 19th Century verse and fiction. No one would suggest that people actually can love to suffer, but making art out of suffering is an old technique, certainly not limited to those at the bottom of the social or economic scale.  

Though James Merrill grew up in relative splendor and riches, with everything provided and taken care of, his was not a happy childhood. His parents neglected him, and fought with each other, and divorced when he was 11. Though brilliant, from an early age, he was effete, ineffectual and isolated emotionally. A classic case of the incipient homosexual, with an intense and conflicted relationship with his Mother, while irretrievably distanced from his domineering but distant Father. By his late 'teens, he'd been initiated into the gay alternative, and he never looked back. This choice, whether voluntary or not, was unacceptable at the time, and led to difficult accommodations throughout his life, with a long-delayed coming out.

The poetry, early on, rather than becoming simply a refuge from the difficulties of a deceiving identity in the world, would become the testing and proving ground for self-examination and scrutiny,  a forum for the dialectic between the outward projected man, and the inward questioning soul. In terms of the progress of his career as a writer, the volume Water Street [New York: Atheneum, 1962] is in several ways the key transitional turning point. A short collection of only 51 pages of text, its lead poem, An Urban Convalescence, is like a declarative statement of where his future lay. Reacting indirectly to the new vogue of confessionals (aka: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frederick Seidel) then sweeping across the literary landscape, the poem addresses a real event--the tearing down of a neighborhood building in New York--and makes what sounds like a very personal and emotional statement, unusual up to that time for Merrill, and somewhat unexpected.

Formally, the poem isn't fussy or straight-jacketed, hinged with cleverness or artifice. It's almost conversational. Unpretentious.

Reading it now, really for the first time, I can see qualities in it that I mightn't have appreciated before. There's that terrific image of the huge crane "fumbl[ing] luxuriously in the filth of years / her jaws dribbl[ing] rubble," and "wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver." There's a sense of displacement, even disorientation that the speaker experiences with the leveling of part his familiar landscape, as if the transformation of the urban architecture had done a kind of violence to the unconscious. There's that peculiar reference to Robert Graves in The White Goddess, an ambiguous reference meant apparently to imply a clumsy deus ex machina in which the crane operator (note the pun on a classical bird) wreaks destruction as an agent of change. 

The meditation turns sour as the speaker rejects the pat sarcasms of popular cant -- "the sickness of our time . . . certain phrases which to use in a poem . . . bright but facile . . . enhances, then debases, what I feel." Conflicted between the superficial disorientation of urban demolition--a shifting of the gestalt of his past--Merrill now turns against that very past--its tradition, its continuity, its smarmy models of performance and identity, and vows "to make some kind of house out of the life lived, out of the love spent." But it's the ambiguity of a love spent, as if exhausted. Though Merrill would perpetuate the empty husk of his relationship to David Jackson for the rest of his life, and would maintain roughly settled homes in Stonington, Connecticut, and in Athens, Greece, these were indeed "another destination"--of serial male relationships, primarily sexual in character, and ephemeral, and in that way love "spent" rather than permanent and "honey-slow." 

Merrill's upper story digs in Stonington Connecticut

The abrupt shift from free verse to quatrains and rhyme from "indoors at last" to the end is like a retreat from the chaotic book of the world, to the private sanctuary of formal discipline, yet one in which secular confession and private desire will be reconciled in the structured context of verse. 

The poem is remarkable for the frankness and casualness with which it initially expresses personal feeling, measured against the discipline of higher principles. While the second part at first feels superficially to be a kind of conviction, this falls apart at the end, as the speaker acknowledges the ambiguity of his moral position, an honesty that is unusual. At first, change is encountered numbly, and with revulsion, only to be grudgingly accepted in the end--the intervention of unwanted necessity. Hearing Merrill read this poem, later in life, with his dead-pan baritone, made it seem elegiac, and resolved, though this never happened in his life. Such declarations of principle are always provisional--as the poem admits--always subject to revision, accommodation, the small failures and retreats which constitute a life lived, out of a life spent.      

        An Urban Convalescence

Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
I find them tearing up part of my block
And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane
Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.
Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.

As usual in New York, everything is torn down
Before you have had time to care for it.
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.

Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
Some five floors high, of shabby stone
—Or am I confusing it with another one
In another part of town, or of the world?—
And over its lintel into focus vaguely
Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
When did the garland become part of me?
I ask myself, amused almost,
Then shiver once from head to toe,

Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features
Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.
The words she must have spoken, setting her face
To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,
Let alone understand.

So that I am already on the stair,
As it were, of where I lived,
When the whole structure shudders at my tread
And soundlessly collapses, filling
The air with motes of stone.
Onto the still erect building next door
Are pressed levels and hues—
Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites. Who drained the pousse-café?
Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.

Well, that is what life does. I stare
A moment longer, so. And presently
The massive volume of the world
Closes again.

Upon that book I swear
To abide by what it teaches:
Gospels of ugliness and waste,
Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,
Of a shrieking to be faced
Full into, eyes astream with cold—

With cold?
All right then. With self-knowledge.

Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt
To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,
Given a glimpse of how and where I work,
To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.

Unwillingly I picture
My walls weathering in the general view.
It is not even as though the new
Buildings did very much for architecture.

Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires
That these as well be blasted in their prime.
You would think the simple fact of having lasted
Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.
For instance, how “the sickness of our time”

Enhances, then debases, what I feel.
At my desk I swallow in a glass of water
No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill
They had told me not to take until much later.

With the result that back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination

Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Champs-Élysées, her hand in his,
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Private Life and the Public Art - Salinger and Merrill

This last year, among the various books that I have read, were two full-length author biographies: Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and James Merrill: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer. The Salinger book is like a collection of separately drawn episodes, with little attempt to link real life events specifically to Salinger's literary works. The Hammer book is a meticulously rendered account, almost a concordance of relationships between the events in Merrill's life and the separate poems he wrote. Both books are honest efforts, holding nothing back, and following the clues and implications wherever they lead. Neither book could have been written this way a generation ago, which may tell us something about the progress of our public culture--what we're comfortable with, what we're willing to acknowledge and even accept in our cultural heroes, how much truth we can stand to believe.


Image result for pictures of james merrill biography book

My discussion here, though, doesn't consist of a book review. Instead, I want to focus on the common aspects of the two men whose stories are recounted, and to meditate on what those common aspects tell us about artistic production, the artistic life, and the possible meanings to be derived from such relationships. 

It would help if you knew something about them, since I won't recapitulate the life stories of either man. Much of what is told in these lives is now common knowledge, though it wasn't information that was available to most of the general public while they were alive. 

Let's start with some parallels. Merrill was born in 1926, Salinger in 1919. Both were in the U.S. Army in World War II. Both were precocious authors--Merrill's first book was published without his knowledge or permission by his Father when he was 17. Salinger began writing short stories while in prep school. 

Both men grew up in relative security and comfort. Salinger's father was a successful food importer, and the family lived on Park Avenue. Merrill's father was head of the Merrill-Lynch investment firm, and was fabulously wealthy. Merrill would never have to work a day in his life, and lived off his inheritance. After leaving the service in WWII, Salinger lived for a few years off his meager writing income from magazine publication, until in 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, which was so successful that it supported him in style for the remainder of his days. 

Both men, in effect, came to enjoy the negligent independence of means that completely frees the imagination from all aesthetic responsibility. Free to live how they might choose, free to create whatever kind of literature they wanted, and free from the ordinary ethical or formal restraints that are imposed on those of lesser means. 

From a literary point of view, neither writer has ever been regarded as a formal innovator. Salinger learned his art by writing for popular middle-class magazines. Merrill's poetry was always formally traditional, working within the confines of historical rhyme and meter, never challenging syntactic or grammatical correctness. 

Both men underwent difficult psychological crises during their lives. Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown during his war experience, and even was briefly hospitalized. Over the next decades, he would go through two troubling marriages and divorces, would conduct a weird affair with a "child-mistress" half his age, and would live out his days in a state of mental and physical hibernation from the world at large, cooped up in a "compound" in rural New Hampshire, fending off vain attempts by the media and his fans to reach him, and refusing to publish anything during the last 45 years of his life. 

Merrill, a homosexual all his life, suffered through the embarrassment and shame of his secret shadow existence, attempting to hide his sexuality from his parents, and from the world at large, and went through extended periods of psycho-analysis. While he followed his writing career, he spent the better part of his adult years pursuing young men sexually, living a life-style designed to placate his insatiable lust. 

Salinger appears to have become obsessed sexually with pre-pubescent girls, in a repeated pattern he seemed powerless to resist. There are possible explanations for this in his psychology. Given his relative freedom, he could indulge his obsession away from the public eye. The seclusion and indulgence seem to have fed off each other. Meanwhile, his fiction became more and more claustrophobic, as his fictional Glass Family memoirs drew him in further and further into the magic realism of their fantasy world. 

Merrill, unable to establish a true lasting relationship, despite the outward model of his prolonged partnership with the failed writer David Jackson, finally submerged himself in a fantasy world of spirit communication, described in detail in his ambitious long poem The Changing Light at Sandover

A common thread is evident in both men, of a shameful private sexual obsession, which became sharper and more problematic as they matured, causing both to involute artistically, while their private lives fell into disarray. In both cases, their financial security enabled them to fend off the world at large, while they were free to delve more deeply into the private world of their eccentric secret art. 

Both were men of evident personal charm, which they used to navigate through the "normal" world, a world which increasingly fell away into obscurity and irrelevance, while the private, secret world they lived in became more vivid and seductive. Free to cultivate their bizarre private worlds, their work became more and more trivial to the ordinary reader. 

All of which is not to say that the work of their later years is unworthy, or invalid. Our verdict regarding Salinger's work will have to wait until his literary executors release his private archives to publication. In Merrill's case, the long ouija board epic may never have enough readers to be considered worthy, though it has its admirers. 

There are dangers to artists and writers who either are born into financial security, or who achieve freedom through strong early sales. Ordinarily, we think of the freedom artists need to create as a positive aspect. But once need is removed from the equation, the tendency to indulge in private obsession may cause tangential distraction, especially if it is accompanied by deviant or suspicious emotional tendencies. 

A writer like Henry Miller may decide at the outset to capitalize on his obsessions, as he did with his curiosity and lustful desires. Charles Bukowski, looking hopelessness and degradation straight in the face, built an entire literary career out of a skid-row drunk's life. John Cheever spent the first half of his life writing decent stories for decent people in The New Yorker, while inside he struggled with his demons (alcohol, bi-sexualism, adultery, artistic jealousy) until they finally overcame his resistance. 

What we know of the private lives of artists and writers may or may not tell us something we need to know to understand the ultimate meaning of their works. In the case of Salinger or Merrill, I'm not sure that finding out the unpleasant underlying backstory, brings anything useful to our appreciation of Catcher or Sandover. In the end, the works have to stand on their own. A couple of centuries from now, will any possible reader need to know that the author of Catcher in the Rye had a "thing" about little girls? Will our understanding of Phoebe, Holden Caulfield's sister, or of the young prostitute whom Holden sees in his New York hotel room, be enhanced by knowing about Joyce Maynard's year living in Salinger's household? Is it important that we know the details of Merrill's affairs with young Greek boys in Athens, to more fully comprehend what the imaginary deities or ghosts are telling Merrill he must think about his life in Sandover? 

Perhaps not.

Is there some important lesson to be gained by noting that great art may be the result of a kind of friction between intense private obsessions, and the public at large, to whom these private fictional worlds are offered? Guilt and embarrassment--the need to tell a palatable version of a private reality-- may indeed be the strongest drivers of vivid artistic invention.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Does it Feel Like ?

How are you feeling today?

As the day opens up, broadens and elaborates into the complexities of living, are thoughts and feelings ascending into consciousness, appearing and moving?

Today, everyone says they feel like

The phrase has become so common, it's gone totally viral in our culture, infecting not just the susceptible young, but people of every age and sex and class and persuasion. Its apparent harmlessness may be one reason people seem to regard it with such pathetic affection. It just feels so nice and smarmy and innocent and innocuous, that people can't resist using it in place of more active, deliberate and frank expressions. 

In fact, what people really are saying when they say feel like is that they think, or believe, or accept. The choice to retreat from directness to the indirectness or equivocation of feeling allows them to insulate themselves from possible misapprehension, or to hide behind the excuse of personal feeling (i.e., IMO or IMHO). 

My objection to this verb phrase is that it's clearly ungrammatical. It is perfectly possible to feel like one is stupid, or to feel like a bird. But to say that one feels like a thought, or a feeling, or an opinion, is to put oneself in at least one remove from the original motive. Like is a simile, which is to say it sets up a comparison, between one thing and another, or between oneself and something else. But if you say you feel like something is the case, you're actually saying you feel like someone who has a certain thought or feeling, as if you were comparing yourself to someone who had this thought or feeling. 

Feel like is a deeply corruptive and corrosive instance of insincere, imprecise and sloppy language. People who use it with confidence have accepted it as a substitute for direct assertion, as a way of denaturing their thought, as well as the quality of their communication with others. It's a deflection of responsibility not only to quality of one's own thinking, but to the clarity of all discussion. 

The next time you catch yourself saying feel like, say I think or I believe instead. After all, you ARE the person who thinks or believes, not a stand-in. 

If you feel something, by all means describe that feeling. But if you think or believe something, by all means say that, and leave the feeling part out.