Tuesday, April 08, 2014


Many have watched the recent five-part series "The Story of the Jews" on PBS. Simon Schama is a genial guide, and the visual accompaniment is splendid. As anyone would, Dr. Schama admits to some perplexity in condensing 3000 years of history into five hours on television. To do so, he employs the key idea of "history as story." 

The problem is that we do not always know whether stories are true or not. As far as I can tell, the events discussed by Dr. Schama are true - so why raise the question? However, the matter becomes acute when it comes to the Scriptures, where many of the narrated events do not seem to be true. 

An ingenious solution to this problem has been proposed by the brilliant German scholar Jan Assmann, who supports the idea of "mnemohistory." In a nutshell, mnemohistory addresses what people remember to have happened, disregarding any strict canons of historicity. But does this approach solve the problem? In the relatively recent case of American history, many people "remember" things that never happened. At all events, here is Assmann's recent summary of his findings. http://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Memory-Early-Civilization-Remembrance/dp/0521188024/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396972234&sr=1-1&keywords=assmann+jan

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At thr cinema

I tend to agree with the current mantra that television has supplanted movies as the dominant art form of our time. But not always. This afternoon I took in the spectacular Italian film "La Grande Bellezza." 

Set in contemporary Rome, this work rivals, maybe even surpasses Fellini's take on the city of fifty years ago. The central character is a vapid, but still knowing man-about-town, "Gep" Gabardella. (Gep is an shortened form of Geppetto, the woodcarver who created Pinocchio - implying that the people in the film are all simulacra, like Pinocchio.) Once Gep (who is now 65) was a serious novelist; but now he is reduced to working as a kind of gossip columnist. He knows everyone in high-society in the city. All these people are well-tanned, coifed, and groomed, but their conversation consists solely of platitudes and absurdities. Here is one: "Rome is now so decadent that the only true Romans are the tourists." 

 The last segment is devoted to what at first seems the greatest phony of them all, "La Santa" Suor Maria, a withered old hag, ostensibly 104 years old, who has devoted her life to the poor in third-world countries (an obvious knock-off of Mother Teresa). But maybe Suor Maria is not a phony after all, but the real thing, for at the end we see her laboriously climbing the stairs of the Scala Santa on her knees. This remarkable film is both highly local and possibly quite general: a mirror for the society we inhabit. I recommend it heartily.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The fate of cities

Recently, my friend Gerard Koskovich, rightly concerned about major changes that seem to be in store in his city of San Francisco, evoked the drastic changes that Baron Haussmann had imposed on Paris in the middle of the 19th century.  In this connection I thought of modern Rome.  To be sure the Eternal City has ranked as sui generis, for much of it, the urban heritage of imperial Rome, lay in ruins.

However, modern Rome underwent both of the processes that have transformed out major cities.  First, beginning in 1585 Sixtus V laid out a series of grand boulevards, linking major monuments.  These inevitably involved confiscations.  More serious were the private seizures of the princely families, such as the Colonna and the Torlonia, which gradually devoured the popular quarters, replacing them with great palaces.  In London  “urban clearance” was accomplished by the Great Fire of 1666.  Here in New York City real-estate greed, as seen in the tragic destruction of Penn Station, accomplished this work.  I hear that serious changes are occurring in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  All of our great cities, it seems, are at risk.

What hope remains to allow cities to escape these sackings?  It seems that only smallish, out-of-the- way places like Siena, Troyes, and Charleston are immune.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Life's lessons

When one has arrived at a certain stage of life (as I have, and then some), it is common to grouse about loneliness. And so perhaps one should - or maybe not. 

Yesterday, I idly opened a big book assembling the lyric poetry of Lope de Vega. My eyes alighted on the following famous lines: "A mis soledades voy,/de mis soledades vengo,/porque para andar conmigo/me bastan mis pensamientos." 

I take it that Lope is highlighting three things: 1) the solitude that is an inescapable component of the human condition; 2) the melancholy that sets in with one's later years: and 3) the solitude that ensues from commitment to the profession of writer.

These are abiding truths from a major writer of Spain's Siglo de Oro.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Exemptions for creative figures

As regards the controversy about Woody Allen and his possible abuse of Dylan, I have no opinion. At this late date it seems impossible to determine the truth of the matter. Hovering in the background, though, is an unspoken assumption that has bedeviled Western culture for some 200 years: the idea that great geniuses must not be bound by the constraints of "bourgeois" morality that govern the rest of us.

The first figure in which this exemption was observed was Beethoven. Yet as far as I can see Beethoven's eccentric way of life harmed no one. Matters were quite different with Richard Wagner whose anti-Semitism was obsessive, and who seduced his best friend's wife, Cosima, and required her to marry him. All in the service of his art, of course.

When he settled in Munich in 1896, the Russian painter Vassily Kandinsky was accompanied by his lawful wife, who resided in their Munich apartment. A few years later he developed a relationship with a gifted pupil Gabriele Münter, and they lived together in a house in the country. The painter went back and forth between the two homes. The reaction of the Russian wife to this bigamous relationship is not known, but in the later division of their assets Gabriele suffered by having no legal status.

In 1911 the architect Frank Lloyd Wright abandoned his wife and went off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick.

Finally, the artist Ben Shahn, noted for his works exhibiting social conscience, abandoned his family to shift for themselves during the great Depression.

The trope is allied to the legend of the tortured genius, who suffers so that the rest of us may be enlightened.  Key examples from the nineteenth century are Vincent van Gogh and Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014


A recent book by J. S. B. Morse argues that even in heated arguments, people agree more than they think.  His title, “Everyone Agrees," puts the case too strongly. Nonetheless, in a modified version of the thesis, it may be that in many cases there is more agreement than at first appears - if only the disputants would stop and take a deep breath.  In the last analysis, most would agree with the following two statements:  a) government must continue to assist the poor and disadvantaged; b) government must act more efficiently if it is to retain the trust of the American people. 

Still, there are limits, and I would like to purloin the incisive remarks of one Amazon reviewer (slightly edited).  “Everyone does NOT agree.  Yet beyond the simple fact of disagreement lies the yet more important issue of WHY people disagree. Some sections of the book imply that apparent disagreements occur because people are ill-informed or because they do not think consistently. This is a polite way of saying that disagreements occur because some people are either ignorant or irrational. And of course, the sub-text is that WE are not the ignorant or irrational ones. In other words, if people were just better informed and more reasonable they WOULD all agree--with ME (i.e., with the author of the book).

“This position is arrogant. The fact of the matter is, there are many people who really do disagree with me (i.e., the writer of this review) on issues of substance, issues on which both I and they are reasonably well-informed, issues on which both of us understand the other's position reasonably well. Often the reason for our disagreements are presuppositional: we are not operating from the same set of (unproven and unprovable) assumptions. I am not enough of a relativist to believe that we can both be right when we disagree. Clearly, when a disagreement occurs, at least one of the parties is wrong. But it is often beyond the powers of either to determine with absolute certainty WHO is wrong. In any case, the disagreement cannot be written off by dismissing the other party as ignorant or stupid. And the search for clarity, understanding and (perhaps even) agreement is not facilitated by such intellectual arrogance. In disputation, humility is the queen of virtues, the one which makes all intellectual advancement possible.”

Perhaps it is because of the company I keep, but I find that many of the Facebook contributions I see, especially of the meme type borrowed from “Being Liberal” and other such progressive sites, propound  as their underlying assumption that the liberal view of matters is simply the way things are.  Conservatives and libertarians who disagree are just being stupid and obtuse.

At present the country is pretty much divided between the blue-state and the red-state people,.  The latter will not be brought around by rhetoric of arrogant denunciation.  Understanding and persuasion are needed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Putin and homosexuality

The vile homophobic policies and attitudes of the Putin regime in Russia are well-known. In a recent interview ago Vladimir Putin sought to provide a rationale of a sort for them when he said that Russia must "cleanse" itself of homosexuality in order to prop up its lagging birthrate.  He noted with satisfaction that Russia saw more births than deaths last year for the first time in two decades. Population growth he considers vital for Russia's development, and "anything that gets in the way of that we should clean up," he opined, using a word usually reserved for military operations.

I do not think, as has been suggested elsewhere, that Putin was simply channeling remarks made by Hitler in the 1930s.  The Russian leader’s claim reflects the confluence of two clusters of ideas that were broadly diffused throughout Western Europe, beginning in the 18th century.  First is the twins, Decadence and Degeneration.  The Decadence hypothesis (still with us in certain quarters) holds that civilizations grow old and feeble, with the spread of homosexuality ranking as a major element in this decline.  The related idea of Degeneration is biological, or rather pseudobiological, holding that society is assailed by hordes of degenerates, including criminals, the insane, and homosexuals. Alongside these notions arose the idea of pronatalism, which holds that the state must promote births and discourage celibacy.  Homosexuals, who supposedly have no children, are obstacles to this pronatalist program.

In Germany the Nazis adopted these ideas, as seen in the notorious exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” held in Munich in 1937.  Yet all of these notions had arisen elsewhere, notably in France and Britain.  Accordingly, there is no justification for the familiar, but mistaken ploy of the Reductio ad Hitlerum.

There are, to be sure, small but vociferous groups of neo-Nazis active in Russia.  However, Putin’s government has shown no affinity with them.  Rather his regime is of a conservative, authoritarian type, resembling those of Salazar in Portugal and Perón in Argentina.