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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I Left My Heart In Ouagadougou –The Seduction Of Foreign Travel

Bill Bailey was an international management consultant based in Washington, DC.  An MBA from Harvard, internship with McKinsey, proper New England pedigree; but despite his efforts and the considerable financial support of his parents, he chose foreign enterprise as his profession.  It was not that he felt the Third World would ever, at least in his lifetime, manage to rise to the level of a proper economic bar let alone exceed it.  It was that there was something appealing about places in disarray that appealed to him. 

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Angola, for example, had just emerged from a decades-long civil war when he arrived.  There were no hotel rooms to be had, car-jacking and kidnapping were routine, and the price of an ordinary meal was over $100.  It was a frightful, chaotic, shambles, run by a dictator who, realizing his good fortune to rule a country with vast oil deposits and diamonds to boot, consolidated his power, restricted access to opportunity, and was indifferent to rising poverty, violence, and civil mayhem.  Yet Bailey was happy there.

After making his way out of the city to the Peninsula, a narrow strip of land bordered by the Atlantic on one side and a calm, protected harbor on the other, he was at ease, at home, and in his element. The shrimp were jumbo and fresh, the Portuguese rosé dry and fruity, the breezes off the ocean and through the palm trees cooling and delightful, and the service impeccable.

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It took some doing to get from downtown Luanda to the peninsula – everyone jammed the corniche out , tired of nastiness, hungry, and impatient for soft sand, good care, and impeccable service – and it was always worth the traffic and the heat.  The breezes were indeed delightful, the shrimp and grouper impeccable, and the wine as good as advertised.

Bailey had spent a rough two weeks during his first visit, but by his second he had gotten the lay of the land.  He hired a fixer, an ex-combatant de guerre who had fought with Savimbi in the civil war, who had come out with more friends than enemies, and was agile, deft, and canny in his exploitation of a post-conflict country.  For $100 João met him at the door of the aircraft, shepherded him through immigration, health, and customs, and drove him to his hotel.  For another $500 he was Bill’s personal driver, security guard, and major domo for the entirety of his visit; and for a final $100, João  got him on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

Given the traffic, he could only have two or three meetings per day, but his colleague with whom he shared the armored, guarded SUV was a young woman from Raleigh who was as indifferent to the challenge, risk, and threat of Luanda as he was.  Given the circumstances, the opportunity, and most importantly given the improbability of Angola, they became lovers and remained involved for the three week mission.

For anyone who has traveled to these unfamiliar and difficult places, such an affair would not be at all surprising.  Temporal love affairs have happened between secular and religious missionaries to far-flung places since time immemorial. It is almost de rigeur to share companionship. misery, and ultimately physical intimacy as an anodyne, an idyll, and above all an easy, uncomplicated, guilt-free remove from responsibilities back home.

There is something about the confines of threat which lubricate sexual interest.  Why not when the tontons macoute could break into the room or when the Salafist insurgents could take you hostage? Or when Ebola or fulminating River Fever could take one off?

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Otherwise respectful, and reasonable moral people throw convention to the winds in the worst parts of Africa. They easily disregard poverty and corruption, leaving it well behind the tropical sunsets and gracious service of the peninsula.  They just as easily enter into an uncomplicated, easy relationships which would be unlikely at home.  Both are different sides to the same coin.

Few travelers are immune from this particular tropical fever; but those who have not traveled where it is endemic cannot possibly understand it.  A friend and colleague of Bailey's, a woman of rectitude and fidelity traveling to Chad, was surprised and offended when she found out that the local director of a program to help eradicate river blindness, was having an affair with the daughter of the American Consul.  The daughter was sick and tired of life in the desert under the abominable control of her father; and the co-worker was desperate for any human kindness in this last outpost of the Foreign Legion.

Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham wrote best about love and intimacy in colonial outposts.  In Maugham's story, The Book Bag, a brother and sister living together on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, become secret lovers in a relationship that to all those who knew them was more complete, loving, and respectful than any other couple that had lived in the colony.  Hardy and his sister were inseparable.  When the brother brought a wife back from England, the sister could not believe his betrayal, deceit, and callousness.  She was so distraught and disconsolate, and alone that she kills herself.  Life in the insular colonial world, seemingly pleasant and convenient had been tolerable only because of her brother.  The idea of living in a world only of bridge, tennis, and tea was unthinkable.  It was this unreal life of social class and easy, uncomplicated relationships that had made their relationship possible and was the perfect environment for it to fail. 

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Scobie, the main character of Graham Greene's story, The Heart of the Matter, lives in a remote African colonial outpost in a loveless marriage.  Scobie, like Greene himself felt completely at home in West Africa, far more than he ever did at home in England.  Despite the climate, the intrigues, and complicated tribal politics, Scobie was untroubled, principled, and open to the sensuousness and openness of life in the bush.  For his wife Africa was a foreign, unforgiving place.  Her inflexible rectitude, her need for consistent intimacy, and her social ineptness made her desperately unhappy.  She was always dislocated, unarmed, and anxious and could never venture out.  Africa was a misery, a special purgatory made worse because of her husband's love of the place and his indifference to her suffering.

Both Greene and Maugham understood that African and Asian colonies were never neutral, never only places to serve and live comfortably and well.  The narrow, insular, rigidly class-conscious enclaves were as important in determining outcomes as the people who lived within them.

Joseph Conrad understood better than anyone how life in the jungle distorts human enterprise. When Kurtz utters his dying words, 'The horror...the horror', he was reflecting on how he had become as primitive as the natives but without their principles.  He had become a savage in a savage world. There was no love in Conrad's world, only confusion, struggle, and penance. 

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The world of the foreign interloper is no different.  There is something enticing and liberating about travel in foreign places.  Not only is one free from the responsibilities left at home, but free from constricting local conventions.  Foreigners are given a pass because they are too strange and uninitiated to be of any importance.  A traveler can pick and choose in a strangely tolerant environment.  Paul Theroux understood this unique sense of social and emotional liberation better than most.  Solitary travel was the most liberating.  The lone traveler could rely on no one to provide any reassuring social and cultural context.  Forced away from the familiar, one's personality and character were on their own.

Bill Bailey understood this; and life for him Africa and Asia was better than anything back home.  Returning to Washington after a long trip was always disorienting and disconcerting.  There was always a seduction about Africa and not only because of the easy sexual encounters between equally freed people, nor by the natural need for intimacy in a strange place; nor even by the excitement of foreignness itself but because of the moral hiatus of all travel.

Bill’s critics never let up.  His indifference to social justice, his lack of concern for the very people he was supposed to help, and his cavalier exploitation of his favored opportunity and good luck were nothing less than a capitulation and a dereliction of moral responsibility.

Bill of course disagreed.  He did not create the cultures in which he traveled. He did not invent the godchild of American idealism – the honored ‘noble savage’ of less-evolved cultures.  He was bequeathed them.  He was their beneficiary.  More importantly Africa had gotten to him just as it had Greene, Maugham, and Conrad - there is simply something seductive, often dangerously so - in the jungle.

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Every man wants what Bill Bailey had – a loving wife and children, secure heritage and inheritance, respect from his colleagues, friends and neighbors; but four months of the year when he was free from their yoke and the harness of respectability, honesty, and responsibility.  In most men’s eyes Bailey had it all.

There is much talk these days of sexual irrelevance.  That is, that sexual activity, when mediated through the filters of race, gender, and ethnicity loses its salience.  It is no longer the primal signifier of human relationships a la D.H.Lawrence , the essential, undeniable, fundamental characteristic of society.  We live, according to some post-modern observers, in a sexually neutral world, one characterized more about the implications of sex than sex itself.  Love in foreign countries is complicated by neither. There are never concerns about identity, sexual propriety, or ethics.  One is on one's own.  Nor does Lawrencian love exist - that peculiar, insistent search for sexual parallelism.

Bailey was not a deceitful man nor one sexually frustrated or angry. He simply caught that peculiar tropical disease which affects all single, solitary travelers and against which no one is immune.
He was not at fault if fault must be assigned.  Lay blame to the tropics, to Amin El-Saidi, to the Luanda peninsula, and to foreign lands in general.  It is simply too much to expect rectitude, fidelity, and honesty 5000 miles from home, on a tropical beach, in a refuge from the ordinary, the expected, and the predictable.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Lost-And-Found–Never Rummage Through The Past For Old Girlfriends

Leonard Barnum had led what seemed an ordinary life.  Married in his early thirties, successful career, two children, a home in one of the best neighborhoods of the city.  All in all it was a life to be respected if not envied.  He and his wife were invited to dinner parties not because they had something unusual to offer, but because they did not; because they sat well, mixed well, and spoke well. 

Dinner parties were as light and uncomplicated as around town where marriages were off limits and personal private lives left alone, as gated and shuttered as the homes of the Vances, Lincolns, and Pomeroys. Everyone knew about or suspected particular infidelities, but this was not the venue to conclude who, with whom, and where.   Saturday evenings were once-a-week respites from  boredom, fidelity, and ordinariness.  Sex was off limits, potentially disruptive and slightly antisocial;  but Barnum couldn’t resist Helen Bailey’s eyes – dark like a Turk’s, outlined and shadowed, young, and soft.

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Like many men of late middle age who realize that the deal they had struck with their partner was unfavorable; that the price of marital stability and good sense was far higher than they ever expected; and that picking, sorting through and rearranging the pieces of a long marriage to try to assemble something more remarkable than ever was, often turn to the past for satisfaction.  The present is too risky at best, and a sad affair for any man in his mid-sixties among young women whose attention is to attracting a mate, not maturity.  The future depends only on personality and perspective, not fact.  

The optimist hopes that one’s life might still be reordered; that one’s routines might be reversible; and that physical intimacy might still be in the cards.  The pessimist assumes that one’s lackluster,
predictable, and unexceptional life will continue ad infinitum.  The cynic cares for neither, knows that he has been billiard-balled on smooth felt since he was born, and romance has and will never exist.

It is the past that rules such men’s lives.  No man has reached his thirties without falling for someone, his forties without refreshing his marriage with other women,  his fifties a more insistent search for that combination of beauty, allure, intelligence, and wit that never could even have existed, and his sixties endless reminiscing about his twenties.  The past is the only validating period of our lives, said Nabokov, a self-described memorist who trained himself to remember the smallest detail of particularly happy experiences of childhood and beyond.  The present is fractional and meaningless; the future speculative and subjective; and only the past has substance and reality even though itself might be composed of half-memories, fill-ins, and suggestions.

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So it was that Leonard Barnum began the search for Lucia Stafford.  He knew that even if he could find her, she would have certainly changed.  No one can live forty years without insult and some injury; and at best one’s bits of might have come through unchanged; but who is to say which bits?  He had always assumed that personality and character do not change regardless of circumstances.  We are how we react, and Lucia had always reacted – and acted – well.  There was no reason that the good bits would have been lost or damaged beyond repair.

Leonard was never sure why he had so quickly been taken by her.  It was not her looks, a bit of the library and the upper stacks about her; nor her allure. She had not the slightest notion of come-hither; gave off no bee-to-flower scent; and was absorbed, serious, and  very, very singular.  It was just one of those things – unexpected, unplanned, and arising out of some weird combination of family genes, his mother’s own quietly seductive ways, the lighting, his disaffection with the first days at university.

Lucia was at first uninterested and diffident.  If she was to look up from her Kant, it would be for confidence and pursuit, not queer hesitancy and uncertainty.  Barnum was nice enough, respectful, and interested; but frankly not male enough, never a mate, possibly a friend, but never a lover.   They had coffees and drinks over a few months but then she disappeared back to her books or someone more suitable; but the damage has been done.  The friendship had not lasted long enough to make an impression on anyone even slightly more sexually or socially aware for that matter.  It would have been passed off as a cheap losing ticket, nothing to think twice about, easy to forget, and in a few months lost without a trace.

For Barnum, however, the impression lasted for decades – a first love complicated by sexual bumbling and immaturity – and it was therefore both because he had something to prove and because the image of the girl would simply not disappear, that he had decided to find her.

It took him a year to find her.  She was happily divorced, no children, near retirement and living not far from him in a close-in, wealthy suburb of the same city.  She had left no easy trail – no social media, no publications, no awards or no record – but when he did finally connect, it took her over a month to answer.  She was too polite to tell him in their first meeting that she had no idea at first who he was and only after a few weeks did she remember their brief friendship only recalled because of a random mnemonic connection between him, her chemistry assignment, and a cold lunch in Harvard Yard. 

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They spent an hour over drinks, pleasant enough for her with shared recollections of school and Cambridge; difficult and awkward for Barnum for whom not only had no bits survived the years; but the composite was totally unrecognizable – a puzzle whose pieces fit but made no sense together.  He never let on that he had been in love with her let alone admit his obsession. That one recognizable and unpleasant bit – her diffidence – had unfortunately survived and now as then, he bumbled and stumbled when he tried to speak of his feelings.

As importantly her face had changed. There should be at least one recognizably retained feature – like Helen Bailey’s eyes – even after decades.  Some feature, expression, gesture that at least would remind him of her.  He would have been happy enough with just a suggestion; but there was nothing in that old, jowly, implacable face that he recognized.  What was he thinking?

After Lucia had left him the first time, he claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line – ‘There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice’ – as his own.  Of course Fitzgerald was a hopeless romantic whose short stories appealed only to adolescent boys of an earlier era and never read now; but the line was still his.  Even after lunching with the fleshy, patient, but uninterested Lucia Stafford, it made sense.  He had been in love with her young version, one that had nothing to do with what she had become.  They were two separate women; but the irony was that he still felt himself as young as he was then. It would be a matter of pure luck for personality to remain intact over forty years.  Most men who have been married for years no longer recognize their wives; and why should they?

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So Barnum finally put aside his obsession and went back to business.  It doesn’t pay to rummage around the lost-and-found.  Memories are rarely one’s own but composites of the reflections and add-ons of others.  What we were as young adults bears little resemblance to what we are now.  The past is a jumble and at best should be taken only for the random combinations of genes and events that cause the present.  It is unlikely that we can find anything whole there, anything of integral value.  If only emotional lost-and-founds had antiques or old paintings in them – items of unquestionable desirability and worth.  No such luck.  Better to try a grab-bag.  At least that offers some promise.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Donald Trump, The White House, Congress, And Washington DC–Finally Looking Like America

Presidents are supposed to be presidential, or so it is said.  Only men of rectitude, honor, ability, courage and compassion belong in the Oval Office; and with few exceptions our presidents have fit the mold.  In some cases like that of FDR, JFK, and the Bushes, a patrician upbringing has assured a certain moral authority and noblesse oblige.  In others like Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton,  and Harry Truman, a difficult if not poor childhood gave a less complicated, less philosophical righteousness.  The values of hard work and belief in the American dream plus an innate ambition and confidence enabled them to rise to power. 

In a few cases – Nixon, Harding, Garfield, and Buchanan come to mind – presidents fell far short of the modest standards established by tradition.  Few Presidents have matched the intelligence, insight, and canniness of Jefferson and Adams and most of the Founding Fathers; but all in all they have been in consistent company.  They were not of the people but for the people.  No one expected an American president, a French one, or a British Prime Minister to be of the hoi-polloi.

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The standards of American leadership were best expressed by Cato the Elder, educator of the Roman elite whose diptychs enunciated the principles which must guide those who were to lead the Empire.  Honesty, intelligence, courage, discipline, respect, compassion, and diligence were among the attributes deemed necessary for leadership. 

Thomas Jefferson, of all American presidents, was a Roman model.  He epitomized greatness in leadership.  Schooled in world history, philosophy, art, and science, Jefferson was the ideal person to configure a new nation.  He of course had his own particular political philosophy – democratic populism – and he necessarily ran up against conservative colleagues like Alexander Hamilton who was wary of popular rule; but Jefferson was always an uncompromised, legitimate, and respected leader.

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These men – and even the slightly ragged and disreputable among them – represented the ruling class.  Even though they may have had more affinity with the poor and disadvantaged – like LBJ and FDR – and even though they may have risen from humble roots, they were of the elite.  By the time they had ascended to the Presidency, they had lost whatever they had in common with dust bowl farmers, oil riggers, or factory workers.  Their past may have inspired their political philosophy and provided an incentive for their policies and programs, but they were a world apart from their origins.

This was as it should be, according to popular and academic wisdom.  A leader must be aware of the nature of his national constituency, but there is nothing which suggests that he be of the same makeup, leanings, and aspirations.  Americans have been conditioned to admire their Presidents but to like them from afar.  They have understood that leaders are of a different breed than followers and have unashamedly sworn an oath of allegiance to a ruling elite. While Americans may have rejected the idea of aristocracy a priori and out of hand, classism has been ingrained in them as it has been in all societies and cultures.

What then to make of Donald Trump who is the most American president since 1789.  Who but Trump has better expressed American social ambition, tinsel, glitz, glamour, beauty, and wealth? Who better to represent the country than someone with the morals of a street-fighter, a Wall Street investor, a real estate fixer, and a Hollywood mogul? America, taken in the aggregate, is not a pretty place; and Americans have achieved their economic success and international clout thanks to bare knuckles, insider trading, and a preference for victory over good.


Trump is hors de série, one of a kind, unique, and indisputably American.  Who better than a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York to lead the country?  Who better than a street-fighter to go up against the Russians or Kim Jong-Un? A man of enforcer mentality and take-no-prisoners ethos to run America? A man of supreme egotism, bombast, and arrogance to send the progressive Left scurrying?

Why do Trump’s approval ratings remain high despite his antics – scurrilous tweets, precipitous firings and immediate hiring, fake news, bare-faced, bald distortions of the facts?  Because he, for the first time in American history, is one of us.  Forget the current progressive idealism – the fight against injustice, climate change, and predatory capitalism can be won and a new and better world can be had – Americans want no part of pie-in-the-sky fantasies that deny history, human nature, and social dynamics.  Trump is a an opportunist, and a manipulator; a gunfighter, a lone wolf interloper afraid of and intimidated by no one.

Gunfight at OK Corral

Most Americans do not want Pablo Casals, Picasso, or Brahms.  We might have been enamored by the sophisticated JFK White House, but this was just a princess fantasy.  We might admire aristocratic taste, but what we really want are pole dancers, neon lights, slot machines, hot starlets, and Hollywood scandal.  We love Trump’s Miss Universe and Mar El Lago;  his private jets, Fifth Avenue apartments, and private sojourns.  Of course he consorted with models, runway queens, porno stars, and the pleasure-dome mob.  Of course he was and still is a bronco. No corral can hold him, no justice but frontier justice need apply.

Despite Trump’s unapologetic dismissal of the Washington establishment; his outrageous, provocative, and shoot-from-the-hip tweets; his chaos; and reports of his sexual exploits, a significant percentage of Americans are still very much for him.  Are his precipitous moves rational and in America’s best interest? A trade war with China, an abutment against free trade on the Southwest border; a free-for-all cascade of uncertain fiscal, economic, and financial policies; and a wild circus of in-Washington, out of Washington presence are neither criticized nor examined by the 40 percent of the American electorate who support him.

This significant support has nothing to do with policy, white papers, or official proclamations.  It has all to do with the support and embrace of the first president who is like ‘us’.  Of course Donald Trump does not reflect the principles, ethos, or personality of the coasts – no inclusivity, multi-everything pluralism, environmental idealism, and social reform – but that is exactly why he is so revolutionary.  He is neither classically conservative like Reagan, Buckley, and  Friedman; nor muscularly assertive like the Bushes; nor as internationally innovative as Richard Nixon; but he is as fundamentally conservative as his 40+ percentage of supporters.  Regardless of his coincidence with many classically conservative positions, his appeal is social, cultural, and emotive. 

What most progressive and international observers cannot understand is the parallelism of Trump and his American electoral base.  They cannot understand the visceral appreciation and approval of this outrageous, uncontrollable, exuberant political outlier. They look only through the narrow lens of ‘rational’ political consideration and opinion and the presumption of a consistent standard of national leadership. They miss the point entirely.

Trump is likely to make the 10 Worst Presidents list; but this will have been compiled by those with a traditional political perspective; but anyone looking more closely, will rank him near the top.  When a President embodies the zeitgeist of a time and place, expresses its fundamental principles, and evokes visceral support, he cannot be ignored.  Is Trump’s populism or liberal progressivism the real zeitgeist? Only time will tell; but it is more likely that Trump’s uber-bourgeois Presidency is the one most Americans will remember.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Let It Be–Franklin Solis’ Happy Indifference And His Wonderfully Good Life

Franklin Solis felt the birthdays piling up, crowding his ordinarily sanguine view of life and making indifference harder than ever.   Now that there were more decades behind him than before him, the time had come to clear the decks for running, tack sharply into the wind, and make for his final port. 

Franklin had always led what he called ‘a life of elision’.  He was never one to build dams, firewalls, or fences; and was far happier when one year melded into the next or one troublesome episode joined a larger stream.  Generally it worked out well.  Even serious family issues – illness, minor disability, divorce – all seemed to peter out before they caused any real damage.  Tempests in a teapot which when cooled went unnoticed.   Things didn’t always turn out for the best; they simply turned out – not according to God’s plan; not according to any plan at all, just as part of a network of freight trains going nowhere in particular with goods that no one really wanted or even cared about. 

Franklin was never vexed about international conflict, political vanity, or the environment.  A quick look at history demonstrated the perennial, inevitable repetition of events.  To be sure Richard III was a very different king from Henry VIII – one was bloodthirsty, cruel, devious, and evil; the other was intellectually complex, passionate, and politically savvy.  One ruled by subterfuge and murder; the other by supreme confidence and authority.  In the end England retains little of the legacy of either king, has merged, melded, and elided over the centuries.  Neither Henry nor Richard could have imagined how little they mattered.  What was the point, considered Franklin, of forcing the issue, insisting on one reform over another or pushing for reform in general?

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Franklin, however, was no nihilist – a philosophical denier of purpose or meaning, an intellectual wet blanket.  Elisionism was a very different paradigm, a kinder, gentler version of that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard.  It wasn’t so much that life was without meaning, it was without coherent meaning.  Every individual is convinced that his actions, particularly if planned, purposeful, and determined, have meaning; and in fact they do contribute to the ascription of character and personality.  They give identity, if nothing else to the individual who carried them out.  It was just that they meant nothing in aggregate.  There was no collectivity of actions which meant something or had more meaning than any other.

Every individual action joins a network of others, past and present.  On the day before the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s valet forgot to bring the Emperor’s gum boots; and as a result, his feet wet and cold from the rain and mud, he caught cold.  Because of the congestion, aches, and pains, he could not concentrate.  His otherwise brilliant ability to design strategic objectives and devise the operational plans to effect them, was clogged, rheumy, and inoperable.  For want of gumboots, the battle was lost.

The reason why the valet forgot the Emperor’s boots was because he had received a letter from his wife who had left him for another man and was completely distracted by her surprising infidelity.  Had his wife been more faithful, or at least more gentle in suggesting the news, the valet might not have lost sight of the Emperor’s needs.

in other words actions caused other actions to happen either purposefully or willy-nilly; but the results were always the same – a predictable, never surprising display of human nature according to which streams joined other streams, purposes effected other purposes and results became indistinct or irrelevant.

All this being said, Franklin Solis was not a philosophical man. While not exactly a good-time Charlie and never a ne’er-do-well, he found enjoyment in most things and was troubled by few.  Take his neighborhood, for example, a leafy outer-ring upper middle class residential neighborhood of a major city.  In the time since he had moved there, two generations had come and gone, the elementary school expanded, downsized, and grew again.  Children played in the alleys, then moved on to more purposeful, productive activities.  Appliances improved, cars became more reliable, houses were flipped, renovated, and expanded; but nothing ever really changed.  Things came and went in small incremental changes before anyone took notice and before long the neighborhood was substantively different than those before but existentially the same.

In a sophomore philosophy course at Yale, Franklin’s professor – a famous metaphysician - asked the class to consider this question: If over the years you replace every piece of your car – tires, fenders, bumpers, engine, wipers, windshield, and tappets – is it still the same car? Of course there is no answer – it either is or it isn’t, but the professor had made a point that Franklin never forgot.  Change in the aggregate may have no meaning, but incremental change is at the core of meaning.

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“How can you be so indifferent?”, asked a close friend who was a political activist for whom no issue was irrelevant.  Positive change was possible – i.e. there was no such thing as fatalism, nihilism, or Franklin’s elisionism – and since this was so, one would be morally derelict and irresponsible not to engage in the struggle for reform.

Yet this so-called indifference conferred an enviable equanimity, and Franklin was one of the happiest men around.  Of course the roof had to be replaced and the leak in the basement fixed, but there was never aggregate meaning in keeping up the house.  Whereas his wife saw stability, security, and enterprise as part of what made us good citizens – a judicious use of money, aforethought, care and attentiveness to practical detail were more than temporal investments; they meant something.

His son once asked him what would he have become if he had studied number theory one summer instead of studio art – the two choices available to him between his sophomore and junior years in high school.  “You would have become a mathematician or an artist”, his father answered.

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As the birthdays piled up, and as Franklin felt the urgency to set sail for port – no one in his later years is immune to the pressure of figuring things out once and for all – he did the needful. He began stripping, divesting, and withdrawing.  Since the happy indifference and the easy love affairs, adventures, great meals, and fine-sand beaches of his youth were long gone, and he was now faced with something grim and unpleasant, for the first time in his life he balked.  Putting one’s house in order was a very different enterprise than fixing the plumbing or saying goodbye.  Where was his happy indifference and his confident elisionism when he really needed it?

His balkiness lasted a day or two, maybe a week, and then he was back to normal.  He had simply paid too little attention to the elisions of old age, had not kept up with the emotional times, and had gotten sloppy.  Of course death had no meaning as Ivan Ilyich, the character in Tolstoy’s short story realized moments before.  “Ah, death”, he whispered. “So that’s all it is?”.  It was the fear of death, not death itself that caused the obfuscation and the irritating frustration.  “Don’t think in the aggregate”, he told himself.

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Franklin Solis actually saw quite a few more birthdays before his death at 95, and was a happy man throughout, notwithstanding bad ears, bad eyes, and dodgy memory.  He was lucky, for excoriating illness can test even the best nihilist or elisionist; but luck is part of the individual meaning compound, nothing to do with the aggregate.  How he would have handled it was a moot point.  He died in his sleep, and his eulogies were wonderful.

Recipes–Carrot, Apple, And Shrimp Soup

This is an interesting and delicious soup because of the unusual combination of ingredients.  The sweetness of the shrimp, carrots, and apple blend nicely together; while the soy sauce, fish sauce, and Bay Spice give piquancy. 

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Carrot, Apple, and Shrimp Soup

* 4 lg. steamed shrimp peeled, cut into 1/4” pieces

* 5 lg. carrots, cut into 1” pieces

* 1 medium apple, cut in eighths

* 1/2 cup dried currants (optional)

* 5 lg. fresh basil leaves, chopped

* 3 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 1 medium red onion, chopped

* 1 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 2 tsp. (approx.) Bay Spice

* 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 1-2 tsp. fish sauce

- Sauté the garlic, onions, basil leave and shrimp in the olive oil until onions are semi-soft

- Add the carrots, apple, and currants and stir well

- Add enough water to cover

- Cook for approximately 45 minutes or until the carrots are soft

- Serve


Friday, April 13, 2018

Damnation, Mercy, And Despair, The Church’s Only Unforgiveable Sin–The Catholic Novels Of Graham Greene

Suicide is an important theme in the work of Graham Greene.  Scobie, the main character in The Heart of the Matter kills himself for the sake of his wife whom he has deceived and ignored their long marriage.  it is not enough that he has been excommunicated by the Church for his sacrilege – receiving Holy Communion unconfessed and therefore unrepentant before God – he must suffer the final, and irremediable fate of eternal damnation without hope.  He commits suicide, he says, to provide for his wife through an insurance policy, but does so more in a final, prideful, and self-centered act.  He, despite his obedient faith, cannot be honest with his wife and his God, and seek forgiveness and absolution. He must defy God even if it means eternal damnation.

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Pinkie Brown, the main character in Brighton Rock, also commits suicide with the same self-centered, prideful purpose.  He, like Scobie, has committed many mortal sins; yet feels a liberation in what he feels is God’s condemnation, for he is now free to act according to his own individual will in what he considers – quite enjoyably – Hell on earth.  How can anyone, he says, possibly believe in goodness or heaven when history, the slums of Brighton, and life itself show nothing but venality, selfish ambition, and greed. Why not join ‘the other side’?  He is condemned anyway; only Hell exists; life on earth is but part of an amoral continuum leading to it, so why not become an Übermensch – strong, determined, and with an unstoppable will and irresistible power?

Greene offers a glimmer of hope of salvation for Pinkie – he frequently cites William Camden about the possibility of repentance and salvation ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found. Greene himself regarded the mysteriousness of Divine grace as the theme of this novel: “

Brighton Rock is written in such a way that people could plausibly imagine that Pinkie went to hell, and then I cast doubt upon it in the ending. The real theme ... is embodied in the priest’s phrase at the end o f Brighton Rock: ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can anyone, the ... appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’. A reader who understands Greene’s preoccupation with the paradoxical nature of religion, as well as with the anti-hero, a man stripped of all his finery and superficial civilization, will not regard Pinkie as beyond God’s mercy. It may therefore be conceded that, however evil his life might have been, his earthly destruction may lead to his spiritual resurrection.

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In this regard Greene shows an affinity with the seventeenth-century Jansenists, whom Ian McEwan regards as “somewhat heretical Catholics” who stressed that only the “completely mysterious workings of divine grace” can save human beings from hell. The Priest tries to console Rose when she goes to confession after Pinkie’s death by reminding her of Péguy who could not “bear the idea that any soul could suffer damnation”. He also remarks “We must hope and pray ... hope and pray. The Church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy”.

The question of God’s mercy has been asked since the days of the Early Church whose Founding Fathers were as troubled as those following them by the notion of eternal damnation from an otherwise loving and compassionate God.  It was to be the eternal paradox, insoluble, always defended by the Church, but always doubted. 

The Church’s conclusion that a punishment of eternal damnation is a worthy, non-arbitrary one is based on the premise of defiance, pride, and rejection of God.  Mortal sin is less a grievous secular action than it is a sign of willful, spiteful one. Of course critics of the Church are quick to point out that such irremediable punishment was devised as the way to control the faithful.  While the promise of Heaven was alluring, it is the fear of eternal Hellfire that encourages obedience, faithfulness, and belonging to the Church. In the early days of the Church through the Renaissance and before Martin Luther, the threat of excommunication was a serious one.

Suicide is considered the one unforgiveable sin because it not only is a prideful rejection of God’s forgiveness and compassion, but an act of despair.  One who commits suicide sees no remediation on earth and no possible salvation in Heaven.  A life of despair is the final, ultimate rejection of all that Jesus Christ has offered the world.

Greene, Péguy, Camden, the Jansenists, and many other religious philosophers and theologians have wondered about the concept of an unforgiveable sin according to which anyone who dies with a mortal sin on his soul is automatically condemned to death, beyond reprieve, mercy, or salvation.  There are none of Dante’s circles of Hell.  There is only one place for those who have rejected God’s grace one way or another.  All mortal sins including suicide are unforgiveable. Yet these same philosophers have suggested that there is no accounting for God’s mercy.  Who knows what he, in his infinite wisdom, might do for the sinners in Hell. 

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The Catholic Church condemns suicide unequivocally because it is a ‘sin of despair’. It is not so much than an individual takes his own life – i.e. murder in contradiction to the Sixth Commandment – but that he has finally, absolutely, and unequivocally rejected God and the possibility of salvation. There can be no absolution for a heinous sin that results in death so the sin is ipso facto unforgiveable; but the censure of the Church is more threatening and frightening.

What mysterious cruelty in the human soul, to have invented despair as a sin! Like the seven deadly sins, despair is a mythical state. It has no quantifiable existence; it is merely part of an allegorical world view, yet no less lethal for that. Unlike other sins, however, despair is by tradition the sole sin that cannot be forgiven; it is the conviction that one is damned absolutely, thus a repudiation of the Christian Savior and a challenge to God's infinite capacity for forgiveness. The sins for which one may be forgiven -- pride, anger, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, envy -- are all firmly attached to the objects of this world, but despair seems to bleed out beyond the confines of the immediate ego-centered self and to relate to no desire, to no thing. The alleged sinner has detached himself even from the possibility of sin, and this the Catholic Church, as the self-appointed voice of God on earth, cannot allow (Joyce Carol Oates, NYT 1993).

Does this mean that suicide may be beyond God’s mercy? That no matter how beneficent he might be, the sin of despair falls beyond the pale of even divine mercy?

Greene was a Catholic convert and perhaps because of that took more of Catholic dogma to heart than most others who have come to religion more because of family tradition or heritage.  He took the Church’s position on redemption, salvation, damnation, and forgiveness seriously with no room for error.  Yet the intellectual Greene could not overlook the breaks in the wall – the inconsistencies and often torturous justifications of Church authority.  Why should suicide be an unforgiveable sin if all moral sins are unforgiveable? Even Dante had not considered suicide as having a special place at the bottom of Hell after Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.  More importantly, if the essential lesson of Jesus Christ was forgiveness – after all he died for all men’s sins, not just a select few.  in fact the Church explains his suffering and death on the cross by stating that the sins of the world were too great for anyone else but God himself to forgive.  If this is the case, then why did he draw a line at suicide? Or for any mortal sins for that matter.  Mercy is not selective.  Not only some mortal sinners should be considered for divine mercy.  God the Divine should show a greater mercy than his creations who cannot escape prejudice. 

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A further complication for Greene and others is the concept of grace.  Protestants believe that good works cannot ensure salvation. Only Jesus Christ can confer it based on his own reasons and vicissitudes.  Yet this grace – this ‘selection’ is made before death. Christ knows who will be saved and who will not.  There is no provision for grace after death.

There are those who deny this premise.  Jesus is in fact as concerned with the souls condemned to Hell as he is those who have not yet.  Some Protestant theologians suggest that the most powerful proof that souls in eternity can be helped is that according to the Bible, Jesus ‘descended into Hell’ to preach the gospel to those who had been relegated there. "For this reason the gospel was preached also to those that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." (1 Peter 3:19,20 and 4: 6).  Romans 14:9 is often cited:  “Jesus is Lord of both the dead and the living”.  According to the Bible, he told His disciples, "Most assuredly I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live." (John 5:25).

Yet there is no sense of mercy here – only a continuation of the Christian message for the living.  Both living and dead can only aspire to salvation if they listen to the Gospel.

Greene’s ‘Catholic’ novels – Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt Out Case – are all filled with contradictions, moral and philosophical conundrums.  What makes his stories so compelling is his understanding of human behavior.  Even those who want to be good rarely are; and one’s attempts to solve the insoluble dilemma of human imperfectability vs the desire for perfection are the perfect ingredients for the thoughtful novel.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Les Fleurs Du Mal–Baudelaire’s Poems Of Defiant Amorality

Charles Baudelaire, poet and philosopher, wrote Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857 and was immediately criticized by the Catholic Church for his message of moral anarchy.  Boredom was the most pestilential of human illnesses he wrote, and religion and its sanctimonious morality were nothing more than social constructs designed to keep society docile.   ‘We pay a high price for our confessions’, he wrote referring to the cycle of sin and repentance that confined the individual within a defeating, corrosive, paradigm of sin, repentance, absolution, and sin again.  Religion and traditional morality were neutering, depriving the individual of his will, his individuality, and his worth.  In Au Lecteur he writes:

Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.

Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains…

The Devil holds the strings which move us!
In repugnant things we discover charms;
Every day we descend a step further toward Hell,
Without horror, through gloom that stinks.

If rape, poison, dagger and fire,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!

It's Boredom!—eye brimming with an involuntary tear
He dreams of gallows while smoking his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

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In an essay on Baudelaire T.S. Eliot wrote:

The possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living . . . Baudelaire was man enough for damnation. “I have always believed that there are two levels [of experience]: One that of science and common sense, and another, terrifying, subterranean and chaotic, which in some sense holds more truth than the everyday view. You might describe this as a satanic mysticism. I have never been convinced of its truth, but in moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me.

The Devil speaking in the chapter Ivan’s Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov says:

But nothing but hosanna is not enough for life, the hosanna must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style.

But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy.

They suffer, of course … but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious

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Nietzsche believed than in an age of nihilism, Platonic-Christian morality has run its course and is no longer cogent. Man must overcome himself by seeing himself as he originally is: as a physiological and psychological being who must therefore choose values that will make him stronger in those two realms.  In a meaningless world, the only validation of human existence is the expression of pure individual will. 

Machiavelli echoed the same sentiments.  Clearly what strikes us at first, and what is known to be one his central innovations, is his disregard for moral concepts in his understanding of virtù. Virtue as understood by Christianity entails following the rules set down by its religious tenets. In its place Machiavelli wants to promote the idea that one reaches certain rules through experience. The quality of foresight, to be able to see in advance what will come, entails a mastery of the notion of new-ness.

When Graham Greene was a young man, he found boredom intolerable.  So much so that he turned to Russian Roulette, the ultimate adrenaline rush and the final, absolute, and necessary act to challenge a life which had become meaningless because of its same dull, and meaningless routines.  He writes about the experience in the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life.

One forgets emotions easily. If I were dealing with an imaginary character, i might feel it necessary for verisimilitude  to make him hesitate, put the revolver back into the cupboard, return to it again after an interval reluctantly and fearfully, when the burden of boredom and despair became too great.  but in fact there was no hesitation at all. I slipped the revolver into my pocket and the next thing I can remember is crossing Berkhamsted Common towards the Ashridge beeches. Perhaps before I had opened the cupboard, boredom had reached an intolerable depth. The boredom was as deep as the love and more enduring – indeed in descends on me too often today…
Now with the revolver in my pocket I had stumbled on the perfect cure.  I was going to escape in one way or another…Deliberately I chose my ground, I believe without real fear…I slipped a bullet into a chamber, and holding the revolver behind my back, spun the chambers round…The discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss was one I was bound to make sooner or later.
I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. there was a minute click, and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position, I was out by one. I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation as if carnival lights had been switched on in a dark drab street…

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He insisted that he was not attempting suicide, although if that were to happen, it would not be because of the mental illness usually ascribed to it.  He played Russian Roulette without any real fear “perhaps because so many semi-suicidal acts which my elders would have regarded as neurotic, but which I still consider to have been done under the circumstances highly reasonable, lay in the background of this more dangerous venture”.

It is not surprising that Greene in Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter present suicide as a legitimate option; but whereas Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) commits suicide in a prideful action of self-abnegation and –damnation for the sake of his wife; Pinkie does so because he has come to the end of ‘the game’ – a life of amoral, self-serving killings, deceptions, and immoral persuasion lived beyond good and evil that was exciting, satisfying, and philosophically pure.  Pinkie chose to live ‘on the other side’ because the righteous, the good, the morally purposeful were creatures of drawing rooms and confessionals – less than human.  Now that the game was over and that a life of legal punishment and philosophical castration were to follow, there was no other choice than to end it now.

“Life would be holy, but tedious”, Ivan’s Devil says echoing the words of Ivan who has hallucinated the scene, created it in delirium no differently than he wrote his short story of The Grand Inquisitor. Ivan tells Alyosha, his Christ-like younger brother that morality would not exist without immortality.  Immortality is the fiction created by Christ and promulgated by the Church, so ‘everything is permitted’.

Perhaps more importantly, Pinkie makes a gaming choice.  He sees Hell around him with nothing but promises of Heaven and eternal salvation.  How could anyone living in a world of depravity, violence, venality, ambition, and greed possibly believe apostolic nostrums? As the critic Sarah Jones notes:

On his wedding night he looks around his room from his bed, no longer alone and no longer celibate (‘He had graduated in the last human shame) realizes that ‘ This was hell then . . . it was just his old familiar room'. Mr. Prewitt, the lawyer, confirms this when Pinkie visits him: 'Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it'

It has often been noted that Catholics understood goodness better than anyone else because their experience of sin is so immediate, tactile, horrible and ever-present.  The danger may lie in undervaluing sinners like Scobie and Peguy-and, perhaps Greene would say, even Colette. They know "from experience," the Mexican priest (The Power and The Glory) says, "how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones."

Pinkie could never get past the ugly to see the good; and for him it simply did not exist. If he was already living in Hell and already consigned to eternal damnation because of his commission of mortal sins, then why not live above the law and more important above morality?  Greene has created a character both Mitonian and Nietzschean. 

Milton’s Devil is heroic.  Against overwhelming odds he challenges God, defies Christ, and rather than lament his exile from Heaven revels in his exile, for he has more power than God.  He will enjoy his work and in his many forms and lives he will devise new and ever more ingenious ways of corrupting Man.

The words of Baudelaire were never far from Pinkie and Greene.

If rape, poison, dagger and fire,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!