"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Aphrodite, Vardaman Bundren, And Ivan Ilyich

“Aphrodite…??”, said Henry Clint.

“Well, not Aphrodite perhaps.  Maybe Diana, but certainly not purple velvet Venus”, Travis replied. “It was not a love affair.  We talked about fish”.

“How cold, scaly, and unromantic”

“Remember Vardaman in Faulkner? He thought his mother was a fish and none of his brothers or his sister ever asked him why.  He had no way of dealing with death, so he thought of his mother as a fish, one of the catfish he had pulled out of the Yazoo and carried to his family.”

Travis Call was not dealing well with getting older, and passing 70 was particularly difficult. “The last milestone on the road”, he said, and the way is only getting rougher. What was most worrying to his wife was his preoccupation.  “We all die alone”, he said to her one evening over dinner; and began to become more reclusive.  Always an extrovert, his jettisoning of old friends was unsettling.  He spent more and more time by himself reading. Except for his once a year visits to Blaine, Arkansas, a small town and the home of Harold Blum, a former professor of his who had retired there and had asked him to visit.  One visit became another and after a few years Travis was as much a fixture in the town as his mentor.

“On those trips I threw my line over the side and was happy with whatever I caught. The fish were interesting all right – spackled, lean, red, purple stripes, mullet, bream, bass and trout – but fish nonetheless.  I found new acquaintances and cursory friendships as disappointing as Kant and Heidegger.  What was the point?”

Dostoyevsky understood the point, and in the last lines of The Death of Ivan Ilyich he wrote of Ivan’s final reconciliation with death:

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Dostoyevsky gave some perspective, and so did Shakespeare and the Buddhists.  We are either all revolving on a Wheel of Becoming or cogs in the The Grand Mechanism. 

Soon, however he gave literature and philosophy a pass; and since he had pulled in his lines, was no longer trolling for fish, and had even given up his old friends, his life was becoming more circumscribed and narrower than ever.

Trolling was great fun while it lasted. He met hillbillies, crackers, shit-kickers, preppers, conspiracy theorists, down-to-the river Baptists, good ol’ boys, and plain folk who drove trucks and hauled cotton seed.  It was an eye-opener, a privileged look behind the scenes, in the back of tool sheds, barns, and garages.  In closets, under carpets, and on porch swings. Lives which should have been kept under wraps were revealed to him, the outlier, the interloper, the outsider, trustworthy and mum because he was from elsewhere, patient, curious, and never critical.

As soon as the trolling began, it was over.

His wife could not understand, for she was centered, practical, and positive. “Your vital signs are good, your actuarial tables even better.  What on earth are you so worried about?, she asked.

Marta Evans did not change all that.  She and Travis were travelling companions, not lovers.  She knew about Vardaman Bundren and the fish. Their friendship did not lesson the anxiety about death, but was as absolute and final. 

“We make quite a pair”, she said one day. “Two people without the gumption to jump into the Mississippi, get drunk and lie on the floor, or just float away.”

Yet they were a pair, spent more and more time together, and everyone thought that they were in love; except that because of the connection between them – an objective, appraising, but critical look at death – there was no passion, expectation, jealousy, or longing.  They had long ago given up trying to figure out what death and dying were all about.  They were unlike Tolstoy’s Levin who struggled to understand what life was all about - why were we put on earth in the first place?  What perverse God could have given them intelligence and soul and then consigned them to the cold clay of the Russian steppes after but a few decades?

For Marta and Travis, it was not only too late to be worriers like Levin or Ivan Ilyich.  Their companionship did not solve any puzzle nor did it give them hope or respite.  It especially did not expand or double their understanding or multiply their serenity.  It was far more basic.  They both understood a profound thing profoundly.

The relationship between Travis and Marta did not upset or damage his marriage.  It was not a love affair after all, and his wife never begrudged him his friendships or probed his reasons.  She was not jealous of his time away nor of his deepening connection with Marta.  She was glad that he was less obsessed and preoccupied, more accessible and available.  It was his peculiar, rewarding, and satisfying ménage à trois that hurt no one, and his wife did not mind that it did not benefit her. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Love In The Late Afternoon– The Sexual Journey Of Arthur Potter

“You’re looking down the barrel of a gun”, said Merrifield to Arthur Potter when his old friend told him of his latest indiscretion, “and one of these days she’s going to pull the trigger, referring to Potter’s second wife Maeve who had put up with him for love, money, and out of downright orneriness, but was near the end of her rope.

“Don’t you understand women yet?”, Merrifield went on. “They put up with a lot, but when they smell it on you, the show’s over.  Lipstick on the collar, perfume, dishevelment they can ignore.  Not pussy.”

Art Potter nodded and ran his fingers through his hair.  Every time that he came through the door and heard his wife jack a round into the chamber, he knew that his days were numbered – if not this time, then next.  And if not the next, then the very next and his jig would be up.

Art Potter felt like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He refused to admit that his infidelity was betrayal. “I’ve made no attempts to cover my tracks”, he said to himself, “and if she is so ignorant and obtuse that she ignores my tracks, then it is her fault, not mine.”  He was simply following a male imperative.  It was biologically impossible for a man to limit his seed to one womb, to remain between one set of sheets, to be faithful to one aging, predictable woman.  “She should know that.  It’s between the lines in every marriage contract. How dumb can she be?”

Art’s sister-in-law was awakened by her husband of twenty years who brought her coffee in bed and said, “I’m leaving you”.  Marcia Logan looked at him quizzically – curiously, suspiciously and a little derisively. He had never been her ideal of a man.  He had always been a bit too lame in conversations, hard to arouse in bed, and always a second or two late on the uptake; but she had married late, with few expectations except a life with no surprises.  Now what exactly did he bring with the mocha and the bran muffin?

Despite her relatively low standards, modest expectations, and far less sanguine attitude than many women in her late-life situation, Marcia was stunned.  “You’re what?”, she said, looking him up and down from thinning hair to scuffed cuffs.  He cut a ridiculous figure and looked more like an old upstairs valet than anyone’s husband. 

There was no need to talk about it, he explained.  He had felt disenchanted with the marriage for some months now, and it was better to make a clean break without suspicions and recriminations rather than play out a tired melodrama of deceit and vindictiveness.

Despite her dismissive, “Well, pack your bags, then, and good riddance”, she felt that she had been blindsided and flummoxed by this dummy – for years it turns out.   Herbert Logan had been ‘making the beast with two backs’ not with someone she admired or envied, but with the Head Librarian of the Eddy Public Library – a mousy, withered woman who lived with her mother. “Anyone but her”, Marcia Logan shouted over the porch railing to anyone who might hear between her and the eastern edge of Long Island Sound.

Marcia was like most women who not only feel aggrieved by infidelity but guilty.  They should have seen it coming, they say, and they feel like shit because they didn’t.  There is always a bit of Art Potter and Raskolnikov in infidelity, and no one is totally innocent.  Marcia took her husband for granted and didn’t understand the zero sum calculus of male sexuality – if you subtract pussy here, you have to add it there.

Men don’t realize that women are deadly serious when it comes to fidelity.  For men, illicit sex is just that – release and ribbons for achievement and valor - but for women it’s all about honor, respect, and doing the right thing.

Men like Art Potter always assume that their wives’ fingers are on the trigger of the 12-gauge, but although they may be, they never pull it. Women are hardwired to value husbands far more than they are worth, to put up with them longer than they ever should, and to be as dumb as salamanders when men leave their sexual droppings all over the house.

Maeve Potter, however, might be the one woman in a million who got wired like a man in God’s factory.  She was never given to tears and grew up in a supremely practical family whose members parsed every issue, calculated every risk, and were more logical than Descartes.  There were no chinks in the Liggett family armor, no idealism, romance, or misplaced hopes.  Nature and nurture were allied in his wife, Maeve, powerful armaments against him.

But mirabile victu, Art Potter’s wife was no different than any other woman.  She was like Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola of the Shakespearean Comedies – fiercely and defiantly independent women who ran rings around their suitors but in the end married them to get the buttered side of the bread. 

In fact she was most like Kate the Shrew who willingly was tamed by Petruchio who rescued her from the real male culprit – her domineering and imprisoning father.  Submission to a man who understood her, awakened deep sexual desires, and fulfilled her feminine sexuality and existential soul was worth chains and subservience.

This all gives far more credit to Art Potter than he deserves.  He was in no way a Petruchio – a cunning and canny lover who understood women but who was also a soulful mensch.  Art was only a normal guy who followed his dick more than his head who counted on centuries of female subjugation and long-conditioned submissiveness for his sexual survival, and did what he thought was expected of him as a man – chased women.

The problem became less academic as time wore on.  Art was now well into his sixties, and he could see his limp and flaccid future with increasing clarity.  There was only so much time left and only so many shots left in the magazine.

He found, surprisingly, that even in his sixties he still had appeal if not allure for young women. He could not square his sagging jowls and titanium hips with sexual attractiveness. He had only a modest net worth, no trust fund in the wings, and no family fortune derrière.  How could he of the quick wit, sharp insight, and wry sense of humor but with little money, promise, or status find himself in bed with beautiful thirty-somethings?

“Female calculus”, he reasoned. The same hardwired, DNA-dependent, unthinking attachment to potential mates.  A young Art Potter would have indeed been a great catch – athletic, chiseled, smart, and ambitious; and women somehow and remarkably didn’t bother with the interstices, the gaps in performance relative to promise, and the unexplained holes in his resume.  He was to them what he could have been; and he felt constantly thankful for this unexpected gift.

And gift it was, for just like Othello, Antony, and Thomas Sutpen – over-the-hill heroes who needed to complete their glorious history, Arthur Potter needed young love and admiration to crown his long and heretofore happy but incomplete life.

Lisa Goddard loved him deeply and resolutely. She was only 32 when they met and he 66; but the difference in age never seemed to matter.  He, because of long pent-up sexual desire, the specter of a quickly diminishing virility, and the frightening flickering of the light at the end of the tunnel; and she because of depressingly lonely 20s, insecurity, and dysfunctional family relationships – especially with her father – made a perfect sexual couple.  They had a ‘five minute rule’. Neither of them could wait more than five minutes before tearing off their clothes, stumbling down the winding stairs in her cramped Adams Morgan apartment, and falling into bed.  They were both insatiable.  She was ridding herself of her father, her Iowa past, and the dimness of her professional prospects; and he was racing The Grim Reaper.  The best sex is desperate sex.

Lisa had not been his first young love. A twenty-eight year old Romanian doctor had been the first sweet young thing to refresh his sexual juices.  Whatever the weird cross-cultural ignition that fired up their love affair, it was more passionate and limitless than a mono-cultural one.  With Lisa, Art knew that she was fucking her father, clearing the cornfields of her youth, and satisfying the sexual dreams of her mother; but making love to Daniela on the hard beds of a Soviet-era spa was Transylvania, Stalin, and the Ceausescu gulag.

At the same time awareness of his very finite life never took a back seat.  No matter how many young women he bedded and no matter their passion and devotion, Art still looked into the face of The Grim Reaper.

In other words, the double-barreled shotgun was not held by his wife, but by Death.  What a horrifying thought!

Every man deals with this conundrum in different ways.  Some say “Fuck it” and continue their infidelity and derelictions until Mr. Johnson punches the clock for the last time; or they get old-time religion, leave their profligate and self-serving ways, and return to a life of marital accord and security.

Art could never decide. When he came back from an assignation smelling of cigarettes, perfume,.and pussy, he felt ashamed, guilty, and contrite; and vowed to reform and become as celibate as a monk; but only a week later he could not resist tapping LISA or CORINNE into his I-phone.

Nietzsche was a believer in Supermen – heroic figures who rose above the herd, dismissive of restrictive covenants of Good and Evil and followed their own singular destinies.  Most men, however, are grazing cattle, content with nuzzling the new shoots of spring, lowing, and clumping back to the barn; and Art Potter was no different.  It didn’t take him long to choose between a happy but short life of diminishing worth, pleasure, and capacity; and a secure and comfortable one.  He chose Maeve, serenity, and if truth be known, someone to minister to him in his last hours.

Men being men, Art’s resolution took months to take effect.  He couldn’t resist the long and often liquid afternoons in Lisa’s basement bedroom. They clasped, groped, and grabbed in the first five minutes; smoked, drank, and caressed for hours, made love again and then said tearful goodbyes.  It was all a replay of a treacly afternoon soap opera and Art knew it.  His arrogant, intellectual side would never have admitted so much schmaltz and violet romance; but his pecker was in thrall.  There was nothing he could do.

He was smart enough to retreat before Maeve actually pulled the trigger, and other than a few intimate male friends, most people in his tony and conservative community considered them a faithful if not necessarily an ideal couple. 

He dreamt of Lisa, Corinne, and Daniela well into his eighties.  Men can give up the ghosts of football, contracts, and professional awards far more easily than they can women, and more than likely it is the faces of their young paramours that they see in the moments before their death and not that of their faithful, all-suffering wives.

There is no judgment to be made here. Art Potter was no Superman, no Lothario, nor Antony.  He was an ordinary guy making do with the cards he was dealt, facing the Grim Reaper with equanimity and resolve, and doing his best to suck the very juices out of the life he was given.

There Is No Such Thing As Genius -Think Again

Joshua Wolf Shenk has recently written a book, The Power of Two about the creative partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and has extrapolated his research to include all creative enterprise.  The solitary genius, he says, elaborating on his book in the New York Times 7.20.14), does not exist, nor ever has.  Shakespeare, Picasso, Faulkner, Bach, and Mozart were dependent on others and would never have written a line or painted a stroke without help.

Academics subscribing to the postmodernist manifesto have for decades dismissed the idea of individual creativity, let alone genius, because of its celebration of individual rather than collective enterprise.  Personal will and ambition are antithetical to social progress; for although society may be a collection of individuals, it is only the subjugation of the individual to the collective will of the group which is a sign of cultural evolution and maturity.

Postmodernists have continuously debunked works of literature as nothing more than ‘texts’ – productions which are important only as expressions of culture and history and especially race, gender, and ethnicity.  In the postmodernist view Shakespeare was no more than a product of the Elizabethan age and influenced by the politics, society, and culture of the times.  His works are predictable depictions of male power, female subjugation, and the rise and fall of imperial powers which dominated the perpetually poor and disenfranchised.  If one ‘deconstructs’ Shakespeare, one will find only traces of the influence of these ‘secular’ influences.  Anyone could have written what Shakespeare did.

As Shenk points out in his Times article, ‘Shakespeare’ had to have been a collective.  No one person could have possibly written 37 plays and 154 sonnets of such richness and complexity.  Evolution – micro-changes over millennia - could not possibly explain the depth and resources of the human soul, say religious fundamentalists; and Shenk and his postmodernist colleagues use the same fairy tale to explain away genius.

Tolstoy in War and Peace expounds at length on his theory of ‘accretive history’.  All actions, whether by Napoleon or the soldier in the ranks of the Tsar, are conditioned by a bewildering and indecipherable cascade of past events and influences.  French historians opine that if Napoleon had not been indisposed with a bad cold on the day of the Battle of Borodino, things might have turned out more favorable.  He was so fogged with rheum and so rattled by cough and congestion that he could not think straight and uncharacteristically misjudged the moves of his opposite number, Prince Kuznetzov.

Not only was Napoleon’s valet responsible for the defeat at Borodino because he had forgotten the Emperor’s waterproof boots (he was distracted from his duties by his unfaithful wife), thus obliging him to ride in wet leather and get chilled, but every general, colonel, and subaltern under Napoleon’s command was equally driven by past history, circumstances, and luck.

While this is true neither Tolstoy nor any historian has dismissed Napoleon the man.  He was a military genius, canny political leader, and man of indomitable  will and determination. His rise and fall may have been conditioned and facilitated by history and chance, but few leaders had Napoleon’s particular complex of character, will, and intelligence.  Napoleon understood history, human nature, and the behavior of both individuals and massive armies. His battlefield strategies had the insight and foresight of a grandmaster.  He could envision not only the field of combat but the theatre of war as clearly as Karpov, Kasparaov, or Paul Morphy could the chessboard.

Nietzsche understood the nature of genius better than anyone, and he rejected the idea that everyone simply floated in a tide of history, insignificant individuals in a mass of conditioned, predictable social products.  His Supermen were, like Napoleon, men of vision, power, and will who through their rejection of morality, good, and evil, rose above the herd.

Shakespeare’s villains – Iago, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Richard, Aaron the Moor, Dionyza and others – were Nietzschean Supermen who were products of history, but who rejected historical inevitability.

The literary critic Jan Kott observed that if one were to lay Shakespeare’s Histories side by side and read them in chronological order, one would be struck by their similarity.  The Grand Mechanism of history was at work.  Shakespeare understood that history would always repeat itself because of a permanent and ineluctable human nature which was the engine moving it; but that there was no end to the individual genius that always showed up.  Henry V may have been influenced by his father and the English kings who preceded him; he may have been a wastrel who finally saw the light of day and rejected the buffoonery of the tavern, but he was a Nietzschean hero who drew his own conclusions about England’s rights in France and heroically and brutally beat the enemy to reclaim them.

The case of art and literature is no different.  Of course they are derivative.  Even the most cursory glimpse of literary history illustrates the influence of the past. Faulkner was certainly influenced by Joyce, but that in no way devalues the innovativeness and brilliance of Absalom, Absalom, a book in many ways greater than Ulysses. Faulkner may have had the inspiration to loosen narrative from chronological time thanks to Joyce, but he took this freedom and license to new and still unparalleled levels.  In the first two pages of Absalom, in the long monologue of Rosa Coldfield, Faulkner evokes Southern history, human vice and failing, psychological frustration and ambition, and the influence of a Mississippi summer.  He goes beyond the monologues of Bloom or Molly, for he integrates every element of this heroic drama into one.  Rosa’s plaint is more than a personal reflection, but a cry of the South.

Cezanne was a transitional painter, who began to move away from Impressionism and reject its impersonal formulations.  There was a very internal, psychological dimension to his art that presaged later modernist painters.

Braque and others took these insights further, and their brutal disassembling of human form definitely influenced Picasso.  But no historical antecedent can explain the frightening insight of Guernica.  Picasso and Faulkner built on the past but neither Braque nor Joyce can explain the singular and dramatic expression of these artists.

Postmodernism has surprising staying power.  The fact that a theory which neutralizes if not trivializes individual expression in the face of thousands of examples of absolute genius from Genghis Khan to Mozart is still around is truly amazing; and yet understandable.  The difference between political ‘progressives’ and conservatives is profound.  Progressives believe in human perfectibility and the power of social intervention.  Antisocial forces can be beaten, retrograde policies can be removed, and the human community can progress towards an ideal, perfect state.  Conservatives believe that human nature is hardwired and unchangeable. We all act according to our own self-interest and will always be self-centered and individually ambitious.  Human society is not progressing and never will.

At the same time this conservative philosophy acknowledges the individual, celebrates individual enterprise, and most importantly the existence of a unique human soul.   Collectively we may never improve, but every generation will have its genius.

Chekhov was obsessed by this debate, and especially in Three Sisters presented both sides of the argument.  Vershinin (and Chekhov) anticipated the revolutionary changes in Russia and the promise of a better, more just and ideal society.  Tutzenbach felt that human nature would never change, and that in a thousand years although human society would on the surface look far different, at its core it would be the same.

So Shenk comes by his conclusions honestly and is faithful to this progressive philosophy which admires cooperation, sharing, and community – even if it is a community of two.

Nevertheless he is wrong to dismiss or even question individual genius, for this skepticism is little more than dressing the naked Emperor.  Of course individual genius exists; and of course each creative, or heroic individual has been conditioned by the past.  But there can be no denying the uniqueness of insight, intelligence, and ambition that characterizes Shakespeare, Faulkner, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan.