In 2005 I had an email conversation with an old friend (she in Manhattan, I in Berlin). I pasted the individual emails into a single document as a diary of the conversation. A. is a kicky intellectual who’s into kick-boxing and neuro-physics and counts Peter Beard as a friend and an Ex (she’s a former model as well). A. once sent me the greatest “care package” of snacks and curiosities I’ve ever gotten via international Fed Ex. She is sometimes flashy.
Some (or even many) of my ideas/attitudes have changed since the below-posted exchange happened; for example, I think my “Hidden Hand” theory of History/Realpolitik is largely absent in this discussion, but, to be honest, I tended to keep those ideas to myself back then, exposing them only after greater trust/intimacy had developed… like a sexual fetish one is just dying to reveal, eh? These days I’m more militant about that particular kink…
The setting is the early part of an early year in the 21st century. Two people, two continents, two computer screens.
S: Just cleaned the kitchen floor on my hands and knees (sponge mops are very rare in Berlin, believe it or not; a strange detail rarely mentioned in travel guides), which is how I like to do it. Zen contemplation. About to go pick up S. (she’s rehearsing a new piece) and then we go to the German premier of Spielberg’s Munich… we get invited to these things and most of the ones we attend are for throw-away flicks like that last Cameron Crowe cliché-riot. By the way, is it really that common a phenomenon, guys who make the transition from early-middle to middle-middle age while clutching the urns of their father’s ashes? Is this a rite of passage I somehow missed? The funny thing about that premier was that Crowe and the star, Kirsten Dunst, attended it (in total salvage mode). So to get into the cinema we had to walk up a red carpet while paparazzi flashed away at us thinking, I’m sure, who the fuck? I was wearing the same musty pants and pullover I’d been wearing since the previous Friday. S. was in a fur coat she got from a rich Gay friend. If we fail to go to these things they’ll stop inviting us and what if something good comes, eventually? What if Fellini comes back from the dead? So, tonight we see Munich. They will confiscate our cell phones.
A: I’m curious what you think of it.
S: Okay, we saw it. Great cinematography, toothsome acting out of Geoffrey Rush. At nearly three hours long, it felt like two and a half… so there’s that. But, like any ‘serious’ Hollywood film with guns in it, it wasn’t much more than an action flick with light political and philosophical padding. Traditional suspense-machine template: tension… release, tension… release, comic relief, tension… release, etc. How seriously can I take it… or to what extent can I trust in its attempt at gritty realism… when no character in the film says anything genuinely nasty, overtly racist, or even really vulgar? I think I remember one double entendre about something being ‘hard’ near the beginning of the film and this was an army guy lecturing troops. Aren’t there racist terms for Jews and Arabs? Of all the people in the world, wouldn’t the characters in this film about the conflict in the Middle East be the most likely to use these racist terms the most often? Gee, everyone in this movie was so nice and polite you kinda wondered what all the gun play was about. I think a little hatred on both sides would have improved the flick and made it at least resemble the story it was supposed to be telling, not to mention the planet the story is set on.
Spielberg keeps making these films (see Schindler’s List) in which he tries to get heavy but shies away from dramatizing pure HATRED. How can you talk about the Holocaust without investigating pure hatred organized on a scale previously unknown on Earth? Hate on a schedule; hate with a timetable and factories: the Hate Industry. In Schindler’s List Spielberg carefully replaced all the hatred with nuttiness… he prefers to show the really murderous Nazis as insane rather than consumed with hatred. But hatred is the big motor behind genocide. Ideology isn’t much of a motivator compared to hatred. Hatred is just one of the human things that we don’t put enough time into discussing because it’s too close. It’s easier to blame George Bush or Arafat or Sharon or David Irving or Hitler, for that matter, than it is to face the truth: the capacity for hatred in humans is greater than we care to admit. I find it interesting that passionate love is what we express in private, as individuals… while passionate hatred works best on a national scale. How can we delude ourselves into thinking, therefore, that the one is capable of balancing the other? There’s your laughable failure of the Hippies in a nutshell. Hatred might even be what millions and millions do best together. Nations kill.
A: What is hatred?
S: “What is Truth?”
A: No I’m really asking! What is it? This needs explanation… you said: “Hatred is just one of the human things that we don’t put enough time into discussing because it’s too close.”
S: My theory? It’s ancient animal aggression plus a thin veneer of self-persuading rhetoric slapped on top because our brains have gotten so big in 30 million years that we need justifications for our inexplicable urges. A dog’s snarl is hatred in its pure form, I’d say. Sometimes it’s fear-motivated but quite often it’s just the opposite… it spills over from an excess of confidence… the sense that a clear and easy victim is present. You may or not recall that from the school yard.
A: An excess of confidence is not really confidence, though. I will have to think about this.
S: Well, I don’t think the psychology of it is always that fancy. Bullies aren’t usually afraid of the pipsqueaks they knock around…they don’t do it because they’re afraid, I think. They do it because they can and the weakness of the target demands some kind of punishment. They do it because the ratio of power to weakness is at a crucial value that just begs for action. Bullies fixate on certain vulnerable targets with this almost righteous disgust bordering on… ecstasy. This was probably part of the process that weeded the weaker humans out of the early gene pool. We probably owe our existence to it. Grudgingly.
A: What are the political or economic solutions, do you think?
S: Mood-altering drugs. The hippies were comically right, in a vague sort of way, when they suggested giving world leaders LSD.
A: Why does sectarian and/or racial violence subside eventually in a place like Belfast but burn so bright for so long in Jerusalem?
S: For some reason the young men in Belfast got bored with their hatred. I think that’s a big story. Someone should analyze this. Making hatred boring may be the only hope. Or, I would check the demographic shift. The hatred hurricane probably requires a critical mass of young men to feed it. Did you get the package I sent?
A: Are you awake? What time is it there? Thanks for the package! Must have cost a fortune to ship but the tragedy is that we have Nutella at the corner store. Must be Germans in my neighborhood.
S: Nutella is an Italian invention.
A: Okay I’m back. There’s been a rapist active in my neighborhood and Xeroxed wanted posters are up everywhere. The sketch on the poster is a generic, menacing-looking black guy in a watchman’s cap. It seems to me that every spring posters like this go up in my neighborhood. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a Rite of Spring. Maybe this black guy is Pan.
S: Or the Yuppie libido.
A: Or the Republican conscience.
S: I just read the news: a poll in the U.S. indicates that ‘most Americans’ believe that there has been ‘significant progress in achieving Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality.’ The article goes on to qualify that statement with, ‘though most blacks are skeptical.’
A: Priceless. Do you know anything about cats? I think my cat has a foot fetish.
S: One more thing about Munich. I watched it in a cinema in Berlin. Audience is full of Germans, obviously. I noticed that every single time someone in the movie used the word ‘Jew’ it made me nervous. I winced.
A: Interesting. But I want to return to something you said in a previous thread. I had this thought: bullies aren’t afraid of the pipsqueaks, but they are constantly afraid that the pipsqueaks aren’t constantly afraid of them. They are insecure shits.
S: They are also hyena-brained and far more ‘natural’ than we want to admit, because we use the word ‘natural’ to mean all things good…when in fact it doesn’t. I think most of what we call our noble tendencies are pretty artificial. We learn them by pretending.
When an irresistibly beautiful woman passes out drunk on a date and a man doesn’t take advantage of the situation, it’s noble of him… and unnatural. A monkey would do it, all things being equal. A dog would. ‘Natural’ is what mommy hamsters do to their wiggling newborns when they’re feeling peckish from time to time. ‘Natural’ is the rape that Bonobo monkeys get up to on a rainy day.
A: Yes, natural does not necessarily = good. Whenever someone defends the shite they are eating as being natural I always say, “arsenic is natural, it’s even on the periodic table, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
S: Natural is more valuable as a word than as a reality.
A: But we live in a verbal reality as well as the concrete one, right?
S: We live in a Narrative Field, yeah.
A: A Narrative Field?
S: Imagine taking a quiz. Multiple choice. One of the questions is, ‘You are a passenger on a trans-continental flight. The plane you are on is less likely to crash if the person sitting in the seat beside you is A) well-dressed B) poorly dressed, or C) dressed like a clown.’
S: Exactly. Despite the fact that we can both agree that such a quiz is patently absurd because the tenet that it pre-supposes…that the outcome of a plane flight is contingent in any way upon the physical appearance of any of its passengers…is nonsense. But we both know on another level, in a way that transcends ‘sense’, that a plane carrying a passenger (or many) dressed like a clown is simply unlikely to crash. Why? Because plane crash wreckage with huge red floppy shoes strewn about it is unthinkable. It just doesn’t fit.
A: Probably why so many people fresh from being diagnosed with terminal cancer have fatal car accidents or get mugged or raped or what-have-you. It’s not that they’re dazed by the news and therefore unobservant of their surroundings… it’s more that they’re thinking, I’ll bet, on some level, why bother fucking me up any further now? I already have cancer! The cancer is my protection! It’s like driving around all day with the parking ticket on your windshield. They let their guard down. Don’t you think?
S: I have a friend who has always, as long as I’ve known him, talked like a well-informed cancer patient. He had the ease with jargon and he had the cadences down…he just was really good at reeling off technical specifications of any kind and probabilities and outlooks with this clipped, confident, guardedly optimistic voice…and then he got cancer. And there was no break in the flow of the way he communicated; he was verbally unchanged before and after. It’s like he hit the ground running as far as cancer was concerned.
A: Can you invoke a probability with words? And if so, isn’t that essentially what we call a ‘magic spell’?
S: There’s no physical reason that lightning can’t strike the same spot ten times in a row. What argues against it happening is the Narrative Field. Statistics are a narrative, essentially. Don’t statistics pre-suppose some kind of connection from one moment to the next? But without consciousness, which supplies the narrative, what connects the first coin toss to the fiftieth? As far as the inanimate coin goes, each toss might as well be its first…there’s no physical reason why there shouldn’t be a string of 5,000 heads (or tails) in a row. It’s only the Narrative Field that prevents it! It’s really almost frightening.
A: I just got back from jogging and am reading this: you’re right. It’s frightening. This Narrative Field stuff.
S: Speaking of which. I’m finally reading LIBRA by Don DeLillo… it’s monstrously good. This guy’s I.Q. just hums off the page. I’d say Philip Roth is the better storyteller but DeLillo is the bigger genius. His books burn your fingers. DeLillo isn’t really telling stories, he’s writing almanacs the use for which we will be informed of at a proper point in the future. His best books are paper super-brains. Any minute now, in fact, I’m going to go take a long hot bath and re-read Underworld.
A: Don DeLillo. I keep reading about him. I should read him? I’ve been burned so often that I’m afraid to try new things. New books aren’t cheap! Why are so many books so bad now?
S: A yes underlined and surrounded by stars. Definitely: read DeLillo. The badness thing. Hmmm. I think that runs deep. I believe the U.S. takes very seriously its role as an anti-intellectual nation… in Kennedy’s day the idea of an anti-intellectual was Robert Frost! They’ve raised the level of ‘anti-intellectual’ to a considerably less forgiving standard by now… honed it… so the current poet laureate of the U.S. is a guy called Billy Collins (you couldn’t make that name up)… his stuff is high-level greeting card. Very waiting-room-reading-material, very Reader’s Digest; the material wouldn’t be much of a jolt to avid readers of In-Flight magazines.
He’s on this ‘accessibility’ jihad akin to crusading to put ramps instead of stairs in front of all public buildings. Maybe he forgot or never knew that part of the lasting value in Art is difficulty. Billy Collins is the product of a late-capitalist model that can’t distinguish between a hamburger and a work of Art. I think one unscientific but very useful measure of ‘Art’ is how long a piece can sustain interest after your initial exposure to it and after having read, say, Ted Hughes’ ‘Football at Slack’ about twenty times over as many years I’m still very interested in it; ditto with Anne Sexton’s ‘Transformations’ or a few poems by Larkin or most paintings by Lucian Freud. But after reading about a dozen of Collins’ poems once it’s hard to want to take a second look at any of them… the meaning comes out so quickly and with so little ambiguity and you think: is that all there is? Some of them are funny in a wry kind of way, though. But so are some greeting cards. It’s almost impossible to avoid having your intelligence insulted these days.
A: I was reading an online zine. There was an interview with this Vendela Vita, have you heard of her? She’s married to someone famous. The interviewer remarked that Flannery O’Connor once said there are “too many writers.” Ms. Vida responded: ‘I completely disagree with that. There can’t be too many. At our writing lab, 826 Valencia, we’re trying to raise all these kids to believe that they are writers–and indeed they are–and convince them that they can go around and say, “I am a writer,” or, “I am a poet,” at age twelve, and hopefully they will take that conviction with them the rest of their lives. So I don’t think there can ever be too many writers.’
S: Well, I think that’s awful and foolish. That makes me think of a five-storey smiley face logo on some future Ministry of Culture in which even the buttons in the elevators will correspond not to numbers but pictographs of dullards performing simple tasks. At the very least, Vida is indulging in the most pancreas-taxing strain of PC egalitarian cant going. At worst, by tricking these kids into proclaiming themselves as writers at the age of twelve she robs them of the pleasure of the infinitely more magnificent declaration, ‘I want to be a writer when I grow up.’ What’s wrong with putting the blood, sweat and tears into mastering a discipline? What’s wrong with working long and hard at something and if the effort doesn’t pan out, quitting to make way for the truly talented? What’s wrong with countering Nihilism with standards and values rather than fostering it through obsessive compulsive egalitarianism?
Okay, I’m off to bathe (and read).
A: That was a long bath. Don’t you get prune fingers?
S: Strangely, no. What does that mean, I wonder? (In fact I believe I was lying in there and reading for over an hour).
A: Wild. That means that your body defies the laws of osmosis. Which just goes to prove that laws of physics are bunk and totally not invariant, as I had long suspected.
S: Wait: I’ve stumbled on a more likely (and less thrilling) explanation. My fingers don’t prune when I bathe because I’m reading a book while I’m in the bathtub. And I try while reading and bathing at the same time to refrain from submerging the book, which I hold with both hands, in the water.
S: I debunked you.
A: I was at the co-op today and I swear to God I saw a guy who was a dead-ringer for the guy on the rapist wanted poster, watchman’s cap and everything. But he was weighing and then baggie-ing a quantity of dried organic apricots so I felt safe. I ended up right behind him in the check-out line and when the checker asked if he was a member he said yes and even showed some i.d. Boy was I intrigued.
S: This morning I read something in The New Yorker by the usually-sane Louis Menad. Wrapping up the article, Menad posited a hypothetical to illustrate a Martian’s attempt to parse Earth culture, writing, “The Martian sees only that human beings attach high value to some of these otherwise identical and interchangeable objects and low value to others, and he/she attempts, by analyzing the system in which the objects are produced, circulated, and consumed, to figure out how this happens.”
Notice the ‘he/she’ near the end of the sentence. Menad, remember, is talking about a hypothetical Martian. Is this not mind-blowing? Is this not a major statement of some kind? All I can say to that is, when I’m feeling chary of the litigious wrath of feminist Martians I usually run for the safe haven of the gender-neutral personal pronoun ‘it’. I mean: is he kidding?
A: Apparently not. Nor is anyone. We’ve been going at this topic for a week now and I’ve begun to notice something which is that I’m really starting to think in terms of US and THEM more consciously than usual. Maybe more than I ever did. Should I blame you for this?
S: Blame is the sincerest form of flattery. Even more troubling to me is the fact that my response to the various nefarious activities of ‘Them’ started off, innocently enough, as disquiet and has grown much much darker of late. In the old days, I’d read about some legal battle in some far away southern state being waged about teaching Darwin in public schools and think… now what are they up to? I’d read it and sneer and move on. But if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I now sense, flying in from a long way off perhaps but flying in nevertheless… this feeling of (for lack of a better word) hatred. My own, I mean. As in an ‘I hate those dummies’ kind of thing. Do you know what I mean?
A: I think so. It’s still just a faint sensation, though, right? Like, it’s probably still just disgust, contempt, etc. You wouldn’t pick up a baseball bat and actually do something about it, so there’s the major difference. Isn’t it?
S: I hope so. I have to wonder, though, am I observing or participating? Am I playing an important role…or, that is, do I belong to a group that’s playing an important role… in all this?
A: Sorry! I was on the phone. Guess what the topic was? Apparently, the police have released a statement to the effect that our friendly neighborhood rapist is only targeting women of color, which elicited some kind of neighborhood sigh of relief, over which some of us are now understandably up in arms. But the crazy thing is I caught myself feeling, like, in some way put down by this latest twist. Rejected. It’s like when you’re at a reading and there’s the Q. and A. afterwards and the famous author doesn’t point at you when you raise your hand to ask the clever question you thought up already half-way through the reading. But I digress.
Okay, so the 64 dollar question remains, what do you/we mean by ‘all this’. It’s like you sense some kind of overall trend at work but don’t have the distance yet to say what, precisely. But I have the feeling that about twenty years from now we’re going to look back at this period as a turning point. Towards what? For better or worse?
S: A combination of Occam’s Razor and Murphy’s Law seems to indicate ‘worse’. Yeah. It’s scary. I completely agree. Whenever I read about the Holocaust in junior High School I always had the terrible sense that I just wanted to yell at the Jews: why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you get out of the country? Couldn’t you see what was happening? But of course, from inside the nightmare, right up close to it, you couldn’t see it. You just couldn’t. It’s amazing how something so big can sneak up on you.