Thursday, September 28, 2006

Two strange deaths

I live in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, home to Columbia University and several other "institutions of higher learning." While strolling on Amsterdam Avenue yesterday I saw a poster advertising a meeting organized by some miniscule socialist group. The subject of the confab was "The Prospects for REVOLUTION in America." Hope springs eternal to be sure. And in fact there are some similarities with the situation 35 or so years ago. However, students are not being drafted now, as they were then, so that there is little motivation for war resistance.

At any rate, thinking back to those days, there did seem to be a prospect for fundamental social change. There was also much recourse to Marxism as the open sesame to everything from sociology and anthropology to literature and music history. Today, I regret the time I wasted on this intellectual loser, a status that now seems obvious.

It is clear that with many families concerned mainly about whether to expand from a two-car to a three-car situation, and how to get their children into an elite university, there is little enthusiasm for radical social change. So the reasons for the first death, that of the far left in this country, are not difficult to understand.

But why should traditional liberalism be going the same way? Some may say that liberalism is just watered-down leftism, and is therefore implicated in the latter's fall. However, anyone who has worked on the battlements of leftist politics, as I did long ago, knows that revolutionary socialists regard liberals as their worst enemies, starting with Franklin Roosevelt, who "rescued" capitalism in America. There is no love lost between the two groups.

Identity politics bears a large share of the burden for the decline of the Democratic Party. During the Cold War Democrats had as good an answer to fighting Moscovite Communism as Republicans. Better, in fact, as it was Harry Truman who first called Stalin's bluff. At the same time many Republicans were isolationists, assuming that we need pay no attention to the rest of the world.

Now, however, Democrats seem paralyzed by the hydra of Islamic extremism. This does not mean that they should have supported the Iraq war. As is becoming increasingly clear, that war is the major obstacle to opposing Islamism. But Democrats should see that recourse to feeble international institutions, such as the UN and the World Court, do not address the problem. Just as we studied Marx during the Cold War in order to defeat the Soviet bloc, so we should study the origins of Islam now. A new school of revisionists is showing that most of what Muslims believe about their faith is a series of fairy tales.

Leftism is dead. Liberalism is "merely" dying. The latter seems to me a great shame.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Books I don't intend to read

The first unnecessary book is Louis Lapham’s Pretensions of Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration. I refer to the notice by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times Book Review for September 24. Undertaking no new research, Lapham lets loose a volley of Bush hating. Much of this volume consists of recycled columns from Harper’s Magazine. As Senior notes, Lapham declines to reprint a column in which he “reported on” the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004. Inconveniently for Lapham, the issue was printed and sent out before the convention took place.

Why did the New Press, Lapham’s publisher, see fit to issue this farrago? The answer is that there exists a body of people in this country who are dyed-in-the wool Bush haters. They will buy and read it, even though the text simply echoes the monologue going on in their own heads. And these are the people who preen themselves on being independent thinkers who are “reality based.”

I yield to no one in my desire to get rid of the Bush administration and the principles that it has espoused. I was strongly opposed to the Iraq war, and have never faltered in this opposition. Yet getting rid of Bushism will require more than name-calling. One must examine and refute the ideas that shape it. Yes, there are such ideas, and unless we can rebut them, the independent voters--whose support is crucial--will not be won over.

Now to unnecessary book number two. Venezuelan President Chávez’ praise of the latest book by Noam Chomsky has vaulted his selection to the near the top of the Amazon lists. Based on his earlier performances, I feel confident that the latest effort by the MIT professor is another scissors-and-paste job. These books are a kind of one-note samba, purveying his never-changing view that America is responsible for all the world’s ills. Well, perhaps not uniquely responsible. for, in Chomsky’s view, Israel is complicit as well.

For all his faults Mr. Chomsky cannot be accused of tilting in favor of Jewish interests. If anything, the opposite is the case. Chomsky likes to defend the regimes of third-world countries like Pakistan that are scarcely friendly to Jews. Notoriously, he wrote a preface to a book by the French Holocaust-denier, Robert Faurisson. Chomsky said he was merely defending the right of the Frenchman to be heard. Maybe so, but couldn’t he have found a more suitable subject for his defense of principle?

The evidence that the Holocaust took place is overwhelming. This information is supported by a large number of accounts and inquiries. These should suffice. But still the deniers rant on. They still have still not been sufficiently critiqued. It may be impossible to shake these irrationalists from their beliefs, but at least one could try to build to build a firewall, protecting new recruits from these fantasies.

Alas, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost does not seem to be among the number of truly necessary Holocaust books. This tome of more than 500 pages is an account of Mendelsohn’s quest to find the true story of the death of the family of his great-uncle in Poland during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Full disclosure requires me to note that in past years I have been an Internet buddy of Daniel’s. I have admired his excellent style and great erudition. Among other things, he is a scholar of ancient Greece.

As published, however, this book appears to be a mistake. Mendelsohn commits the fault of my graduate students who, in writing their dissertations, recite the entire personal history of their quest to find the answer to the problem they are addressing. What we need is the answer, not a diary of the process required to reach it. It seems that Mendelsohn’s book is also padded with quotations from the Hebrew Bible that do not seem explanatory.

In the course of his own quest Mendelsohn traveled the world, visiting such countries as Israel and Australia, where survivors of the massacres in Poland are living. Yet after all the searching the answer he reaches does not seem to be entirely convincing. It is, though, that the family was killed in two separate actions. In the first the mother and three of the daughters were murdered. The father and another daughter survived a little longer. Details are meager, and as I noted the facts do not seem entirely certain.

Here is what every book author dreads to hear from his editor. "Mr. Author, couldn’t you adequately present your findings in an article of 15 or 20 pages?" Of course, had Mr. Mendelsohn followed this advice he would not have garnered prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and The New York Times (two).

There is a further question of balance. Were someone to write a book of similar length about the fate of his relatives in Rwanda or Darfur would it receive similar attention? In fact would it be published at all?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Multiculturalism and its surrogate

Many years ago, when I was in publishing I had the privilege of working with the late Ruth Eisenstein, whose editorial standards, ones I could never fully meet, have been a beacon to me ever after.

Once, in one of our theoretical sessions, Ruth told me about her encounter in college with a French exchange student. This young women knew, or so it seemed, everything there was to know about France. Ruth resolved to do the same for Judaism.
She lived up to this goal a n d she knew a great deal about non-Jewish matters.

In the course of some forty years of college teaching in New York City I have had a number of outstanding Jewish students. Some were relatively uninterested in their heritage. Others very much so. But all of them made the effort required to comprehend what I was teaching about the European middle ages and ancient Egypt, my two principle subjects.

It is possible, therefore, to combine an attention to "roots" with a commitment to universal human culture.

Unfortunately, many in the roots category nowadays do not seem to be capable of this dual vision. They are cultural chauvinists. I suppose this myopia comes in many varieties, but I most encounter this approach nowadays with Hispanic persons. To be sure, many young people of Hispanic/Latino background are remarkably ignorant of their heritage. They are mesmerized by American popular culture.

Yet there is another type of person that I would term Hispanic exclusivists. They are constantly promoting the study of literature and culture of Hispanic origin, to the exclusion of everything else. Of course they believe that the United States must become bilingual. Some even subscribe to the irridentism of the myth of Astlan, the belief that our Southwest must yield to a reconquista.

Unfortunately, there are a number of negative traits in the Spanish heritage. These include the idea of limpieza de sangre, or racial purity. It is odd that this notion should have resurfaced in the idea of "la raza," which encompasses a number of racial strains, but so it is. Then there are the malign effects of the Spanish conquest, including a predilection for a strong man and a recurring tendency to protectionism, which holds the economies back.

In short as a player or players in the great orchestra of cultures, Hispanism has much to contribute. But as an all-encompassing set of beliefs--well, that is a caballo de otro color.

Such cultural chauvinism is found nowadays among a number of groups in America, not just Hispanics. What is important to recognize, however, is that such exclusivism is not a manifestation of true multiculturalism. In fact, it is the opposite. Genuine multiculturalism means a wish to learn about many cultures. Assigning a place of special privilege to any one culture does not exemplify this requirement. Moreover, such cultural exclusivism is contributing to the Balkanization of American culture.

I find it hard to believe that Al Gore committed the gaffe of defining "E pluribus unum" as "out of one, many." Whoever said it, though, that is a daunting prospect.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Sometimes I suspect that I am a latter day Signor Pococurante. That personage was a caustic literary critic in Voltaire’s Candide, who despised Homer, Vergil, Milton and other famed luminaries. Anyway, in the field of literature Shelley, Wordsworth, Dostoievsky, Emily Dickenson, Faulkner and a host of contemporary eminentos seem overrated. In music I despise Chopin, Puccini, Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius, Prokofieff and much of Beethoven—not to mention all “major” American composers.

There are names in that second list to offend almost anyone. In my defense, though, I have tried them all, some at one time with enjoyment. After serious consideration, I find that these figures don’t hold up.

It is odd though, that my own field of art history provides little purchase for such pet peeves. To be sure, I do not care much for the paintings of Rubens, yet I can see that his range and ambition qualify him as a major artist.

My main demurral in art turns out to be Andy Warhol. The following comments stem from a Ric Burns PBS documentary in the “American Masters” series. In my view Warhol’s fame is a kind of group fantasy. He is a great artist because so many people unthinkingly assent to this claim.

It used to be said that Picasso would throw together any sort of crap, sign it, and ship it off to a dealer, who would immediately flog it to a wealthy but gullible collector. Not so, at least not for most of Picasso’s production. Yet that seems to be what happened with Warhol’s paintings. The big late works, empty decals that continually insult the viewers’ intelligence, are essentially paint-by-the numbers. Warhol, or more likely one of his flunkies, would make a polaroid to serve as a template for a portrait. Then Warhol (viz. a flunky) would ink in the contours using the silk-screen method. These “masterpieces” went for $25,000—quite a piece of change in those days.

The reductio ad absurdum is the huge portraits of Mao Zedong. These manage to be both aesthetically and politically insulting.

This is what it pretty much boils down to. The whole art career of Andy Warhol is a monument to everything that was empty, meretricious, and excessive about the sixties and seventies. There is stiff competition. “Run it up the flagpole, and watch ‘em salute!” People did and do. But why?

Oddly enough, I believe that Warhol’s films (some actually made by Paul Morrissey) are, by contrast, underrated nowadays. Items like “Blowjob” and “Lonesome Cowboys,” which bordered on soft-core porn, prepared the way for more sexually explicit fare. Most importantly, the whole “Indie” aesthetic in film owes a great deal to Warhol cinema. Some, like the eight-hour viewing of the Empire State Building, are unwatcheable now, but they were landmarks in their time. Other films though still seem entertaining. The actor Joe Dallessandro, without a brain in his head, was mesmerizing.

What is the reason for the contrast between the oubliette of obscurity into which the films have fallen vs. the ubuquity of the Warhol paintings and graphics in our museums and media? Basically, it comes down to money. Museums, collectors, and dealers have enormous sums invested in the Warhol bubble. Such bubbles have been punctured in the past though, witness the fate of such French academic painters as Bonnat, Cabanel, and Meissonnier, who once bestrode the art market like colossi. Few remember their names today.

Actually, now that I think about it, I believe that Marcel Duchamp is overrated also. (More groans, especially from my artist friends.) But that view would have to be the subject of a separate posting.


In my youth the melting-pot ideal--assimilation--was still the goal of American society. Each year there was a parade of new citizens called "I Am an American Day."
While the jingoistic flavor of these events may have been regrettable, they signaled a wish that we become all one people.

Now that aim has been reversed, and we are urged to accept our "ethnic heritage(s)." Be diverse! Be very diverse! That is not a recipe for a successful society.

In the course of my adult life I have visited some forty countries. I try to keep up with writings in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. I am hoping to revive my Chinese and add to my skimpy Arabic. In short I am a believer in Matthew Arnold's ideal of availing oneself of the best that has been thought and written.

For that reason I think that it is too bad that some would restrict themselves to the productions of only one language group or nation.

I like to say that no one can guess my ethnicity unless I tell them. I like it that way. I have spent only one week in the (nominal) country of my "roots." It was OK, but I have no plans to go back.

Now I have found an ethnicity I can acknowledge, though. It's Basque. I must start learning the language.

It seems that DNA samples from a variety of places in the British Isles have shown that the bulk of the population there does not derive from any of the well-known invasions. The Anglo-Saxons did not ethnically cleanse the Celts before they settled down. Neither did the Celts. And the Vikings were few. All of these were elite adjuncts to an existing population, which was truly old European. In other words it may be Basque, because the Basques represent the last remnant of a much larger original pre-Indo-European language pool. As a gene complex that pool still survives--big time.

I'm not saying which of the far-flung ensemble of Basque countries my ancestors come from, though.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Clinton rampant

After five and a half years of arrogance, dissembling, and incompetence in the Bush White House, the domestic policies of the Clinton administration are looking better and better. Even conservatives-—especially conservatives--should acknowledge that it was Clinton who maintained policies of fiscal responsibility and kept the rate of government expansion down. And there was welfare reform. While there has recently been a certain amount of grousing among die-hard “progressives,” reasonable observers accept that the reform has worked.

I am less impressed by Bill Clinton’s post-presidential phase. Seeking to emulate the admirable efforts of Jimmy Carter, Clinton has established a foundation. He now jets about the world making appearances on its behalf. But in his own style. He has blatantly departed from Carter’s characteristically modest demeanor. His visits are always high profile, accompanied by cameras and exuberant displays of his importance. He relishes the “love” he receives from addressing audiences of hundreds of thousands. He engages in sloppy bonhomie with one African dictator after another, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a considerable portion of the largesse he is distributing will end up in Swiss bank accounts.

Such “neediness” is often ascribed to an outsized ego. In fact, the behavior attests the opposite. Bill Clinton is so insecure that he needs constant injections of approval. There is something almost pathological about this hunger for validation.

Clinton boasts about saving lives. Yet it will be a long time if ever to the day when he can atone for the fact that he failed to intervene in the Rwanda genocide. Today, other high-profile figures, most recently the actor George Clooney, have been to Darfur. To the best of my knowledge Clinton has not.

From humble beginnings, Bill Clinton has ascended to a position where he associates only with the rich and powerful. If present at all, the common people appear only as extras in his occasional appearances before cheering crowds. (To my mind, these events have a little of the flavor of Nuremberg—but maybe I am just an old fogy.)

Clinton’s change of company from “ordinary folks” to elite movers and shakers is a kind of parable of the fate of the Democratic Party. It has lost touch with its populist roots. There is no mystery as to why working people in Kansas and other red states have left the Democratic Party. The party deserted them.

Nor does Clinton's fancy company assure a better knowledge of the world. Instead it leads to groupthink. With access (presumably) to sources of information not available to ordinary folks, both Clintons were supporters of the disastrous Iraq war. They still are. Of course Hillary, making political calculations about the erosion of her base, has attempted to spin her record. She now claims that when she voted with the majority in the Senate to authorize the war she was merely seeking to give Bush a negotiating device. Fiddlesticks. She knew perfectly well that Bush and his cronies would use the vote to take us into war. Does no one remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? During the course of the Iraq war she has been an enthusiastic hawk. Her chief complaint has been that Bush did not prosecute it more vigorously. As far as I can see, her husband has not offered any balance on this matter.

Why should we continue to believe in individuals whose judgment has been proved wrong on the major issue of our day? It has been shown that the second-string Knight-Ridder newspapers had a better understanding of the false information used to drum up support for the war than did the elite New York Times and The New Republic. And of course ordinary people like me, sitting in our humble living rooms could see that the case for the war was fabricated.

The September 18 New Yorker contains an almost interminable piece of Clinton cheerleading entitled “The Wanderer.” The author of the article is David Remnick, the boy wonder who now runs The New Yorker. He makes no bones of his admiration for everything that Bill does, while looking forward to a Hillary Clinton presidency. What are the chances of that eventuality now? With each passing day her tortured efforts to extricate herself from complicity in the Iraq war are making her election to the presidency less likely. Of course she won renomination in the New York State primary, but the issue will not go away.

By the way, there is a typo elsewhere in The New Yorker. In a review of Günter Grass’s new memoir (made from the German original, since the translation has not appeared), Ian Buruma is made to write the book’s title as “Beim Haüten der Zwiebel.” The dieresis is on the wrong vowel. (Maybe the typesetter had been listening to the Blue Öyster Cult.)

In a magazine that was formerly immaculate in terms of fact-checking, such gaffes now occur in virtually every issue. A few weeks back were treated to “Genghis Kahn” (the noted financier, I presume).

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Sunday funnies

I do not consider myself a political junkie. In these perilous times, however, it would be folly to insulate oneself from knowledge of current events. The competence-—usually lack thereof-—of politicians affects everyone.

One source is the Sunday morning news programs. Yesterday I tuned into “Meet the Press,” where the hideous mug of Dick Cheney was seen spinning out one lie after another. So I switched. A few minutes later the shooter who couldn’t shoot straight was still at it. And on and on and on. Cheney occupied the entire hour! And this the day before the 9/11 commemoration.

Why was this travesty allowed to occur? Apparently Tim Russert did ask a few tough questions, but Cheney (probably rehearsed) easily evaded them.

What about the idea of speaking truth to power? Here is what I think has happened to our sorry journalist profession. For many years, journalists, acting on their well-documented liberal beliefs, gave special treatment to Democratic politicians. Then, especially after 9/11, they became sensitive to criticism about their views, and began to lean over backwards to be nice to Republicans. In other words they have been behaving like the pathetic Tony Blair, who was first Clinton’s poodle and now heels on Bush's command.

Another factor is the wealth of leading journalists. They live in fancy suburbs and send their children to schools with those of other powerful people. If their jobs should fail, they may count on assuming other positions in the complex of lobbying, foundations, and government cheerleading in general. Much of this happens in the marvelous world of Inside the Beltway, almost completely insulated from the American people.

At all events I have new names for the news programs. There is ”Deface the Nation” with Bob Shifty. A younger image appears in “This Weakling” with George Staphylococcus. At least the “McLaugh-in Group” is brief-—only half an hour. The leader is of course “Meet the Depressed” with Tim Rustbelt.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Susan Sontag's jottings

When Susan Sontag died in December 2004 some criticism surfaced in gay circles regarding her lack of candor about her gay side. Her reticence seemed to evidence her fear that being “out” would reduce her influence as one of our prime intellectuals.

Now the NY Times Magazine has published a selection from a decade of her diary entries (1958-67), starting with the period when she first went to Paris. From these documents one can deduce that she was probably a Kinsey 5. After the dissolution of her troubled marriage to the Freudian Philip Rieff, she seems to have had affairs only with women. In the entries she refers repeatedly to her "homosexuality." She did not simply have a lesbian side-—it was her main side. Her last years were anchored by a stable relationship with the photographer Annie Leibowitz. Yet both women seemed to have done everything possible to downplay it.

The diaries contain some amusing observations. For example, at a Paris party she encountered “a man who looked like Jean-Paul Sartre, only uglier, with a limp, and was Jean-Paul Sartre.” Having grown up in Los Angeles, she eventually settled in New York, which may seem surprising in view of the following note. “In Calif., a stranger is a [potential] friend until he proves otherwise; in NY, a stranger is an enemy until he proves otherwise. One uses up a lot of energy in NY by that hypothesis.”

All in all, however, these jottings reveal a celebrity hunter who was an intellectual magpie. Towards the end of 1965 she gives an account of her intellectual formation, which included the “German-Jewish refugee intellectuals” (Arendt, Scholem, Marcuse and so forth), Wittgenstein, and “the French” (Artaud, Barthes, Cioran, Sartre). She never seems to have tried to create a foundation by reading, say, Leibniz and Kant, among the Germans, or Descartes and Rousseau, among the French. She claims an interest in art history, but names as a source only Jasper Johns (a friend). Her preferences in film were predictably avant-garde, and she never seemed to have gotten off the Jean-Luc Godard bandwagon. Fortunately, she later recanted her view that white people are the cancer of human history.

Flitting from flower to flower, Sontag attached herself to all the fashionable names without ever achieving a solid intellectual foundation.

I met Susan Sontag only once, at the first national conference of the Gay Academic Union, which I had helped organize in New York in 1973. We were in a small group chatting in an alcove, and she seemed genuinely humble and willing to learn.

Sontag and I both grew up as lonely adolescents in Los Angeles, she being born in 1933 and I in 1934. When she later described the epiphany of buying the Partisan Review at the outdoor magazine stand just off Hollywood Boulevard, I remembered haunting that stand myself in search of print sources of mental stimulation. Both of us were contentious, and it would have been fun to argue with her in those days. After spending time in New York, we both moved to Europe in the same year, 1958-—she to France and I to Italy.

Of course Susan Sontag became a renowned public figure, and I didn’t. Still, I am glad that I created a true intellectual foundation for myself. She did not.

Earlier this morning I looked into the philological background, in ancient Greek, for Aphrodite Urania. After these delvings I can now confidently interpret Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” for my class on Monday. Unless Wittgenstein, Artaud, or some other household god brought up the matter, Sontag would not have been able to do this. Nor would she have cared.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dietetic Correctness (DC)

[The following satire may seem off-the-wall. Probably it is. But read on.

Provided they stay this side of cannibalism, I have no objection to others eating and drinking as they see fit. I confess, though, to increasing irritation concerning the nannyism of the Dietetically Correct. “No, no-—it’s bad for you,” goes the constant refrain. Even without the words their disapproving glances tell the same story.

Moreover, there are signs that the moralism of these folks is beginning to move beyond exhortation towards restriction. Some years ago a proposal that “junk foods” be subject to a special tax garnered much approval in bien pensant circles. This tax would fall heaviest on the poor, who are the ones most misguided, it seems, in choosing such incorrect foods. Chicago now bars restaurants from serving foie gras. Ostensibly this ban is based on concern for the geese. It is not surprising that dietary restrictionists should initially advance other reasons to get their prohibitions adopted. Another Chicago proposal is to forbid cooking french fries in a certain type of fat.

These small steps are harbingers of things to come. How long will it be before tap water is forbidden in restaurants? The owners will love the ban, because then they can sell a lot of expensive bottled water.

Apart from the looming threat of regulatory intervention, Dietetic Correctness has harmed many supporters, by creating an overarching sense of insecurity, accompanied by an endless search for damning information about foods and beverages that are “bad for you,” and must therefore be eschewed. This is a recipe for neurosis.

Fine cuisine is one of humanity’s greatest aesthetic resources. It must not be supplanted by a relentless quest to hunt down suspect groups of foods.]


As I prepare to return to the halls of academia today, I am inwardly steeling myself to withstand the assaults of the dreaded Aqua Terrorists or Adamastorians. Together with other New Age phenomena, this deadly cult has gained many adherents among susceptible young people in our universities. Adepts may be recognized by the long, gleaming cylinders they brandish, reputedly filled with the Holiest of Water. As they advance others must submit, whereupon the assembled Adamastorians cry out TUBULAR! as with one voice. To avoid this fate, one must learn to spot them from a long ways off, and then flee.

Some tube wavers, it is said, have blasphemously refilled the cylinders with ordinary tap water. Though they may not know it, these too are fulfilling the sacred command. For by their act of brandishing they still Speak the Word—they acknowledge their fealty to Adamastor, King of the Deep Waters.

What are the origins of this puzzling cult? Many years ago a prescient anthropologist published a study of the obscure Nacirema, located somewhere between Aztlan and the Tlingit country. The central theme of the belief and ritual system of this strange people is to found in their water chapels, an indispensable feature of every Nacirema dwelling. Ostensibly devoted to ritual cleanliness, these sinister chambers reflect their culture’s prevailing hatred of the human body. Some of these chapels house small ovens in which the owners’ heads are baked. Others feature a kind of electrical torture instrument, which spews out excruciatingly hot air. There are also implements for the painful removal of various excrescences of the human body.

The Adamastorians are effecting an aggressive expansion of this cult, hitherto ensconsed in the innermost chambers of private homes. Adepts see it as their missionary aim to convert, by tube and water, all humanity to their cause.

Further research indicates that the Adamastorians are merely the shock troops of a larger, more inclusive faith. This is the Cult of Ortho-Ingestion. The central belief of the cult is that consumption of the appropriate foods and liquids will guarantee eternal life. A single slip, though, means death. One is only a swallow away from Paradise-—or Hell.

As regards the origins of Ortho-Ingestion, some analogies have been found with the Jewish dietary laws enshrined in the book of Leviticus. These, however, are rational, in that they lay out a clear schedule of unclean animals whose flesh is not to be eaten. Not so with the Orthos. For a time they joined the Japanese in forbidding butter, but now it is permitted again. Fish was once considered healthy, but not so any more because of the noxious dies that have been found in some commercially available species. In short, the Ortho party line changes frequently, almost inexorably.

Still, some foodstuffs, such as sugar, will always be treyf, never ortho. Here one is reminded of the old-style government campaign against “reefer madness.” Just as a single puff of marijuana will ruin you for life, so too just one teaspoon of sugar (“to make the medicine go down,” as the Satanic cry has it) will destroy every basis for a sound, healthy existence.

Be afraid, be very afraid. The Ortho Brigades are coming!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Genius loci

Most employed people, and that means most people, have limited time for travel, and some of that must be domestic, largely in the form of family obligations. When they go abroad they wish to take maximum advantage of their opportunities. In practice this often means concentrating on major cities, London and Paris, Berlin and Rome. Before going, one can make lists of things to see, but beyond that one hopes to tap into the Spirit of Place, the genius loci as the Latin phrase has it. How can this be described?

In former times one spoke confidently of national character. Let us first determine what the English national character is--polite, practical, oriented to the preservation of age-old traditions--and then we will see that in London. Well, not anymore, perhaps, since central London is now mainly inhabited by people of non-English stock.

Then there is the London of urbanists. One of them, the Dane Steen Eiler Rasmussen, characterized London (without intending any offence) as "the scattered city." The "Great Wen" spreads out horizontally over a vast territory, unlike the concentrated Continental cities, whose identity is largely bound up with the restricted territory marked out by their former system of walls.

In reality our understanding of cities is probably subjective. Interestingly, the German philosopher Leibniz developed his idea of perspectivism by alluding to prints of cities. Some show a birds'-eye view, others one of the main city gates, still others the markets where citizens gather. All these represent the city, but none exclusively so.

During the sixties I was fortunate to live in London for four years. I can tell you what my London is. Above all, it is a configuration of green squares, such as Mecklenburg Square, where I hung out when I lived in a building there, or the great open space of Hyde Park, where I would read looking out at the Serpentine. London was also the Wren churches in the City (not the same as the city), and of course the great museums, where I spent much time. I was attached to the University of London, in "godless Gower Street," so that was important. Nearby was Dillon's Bookshot, not the sad relic it was now, but a continuing source of education in itself. Finally, there were certain pubs in Earl's Court.

A couple of years ago an impecunious friend, a freelance writer, showed me a list of spots, his "must" in London. At the age of forty he was fulfilling his dream. Good for him. But I recognized hardly any of his "musts." He was planning to see a different city than the one I knew. Paging Dr. Leibniz!

Despite all the changes over time, and the differences of perspectivism, there is a LONDON. As the saying goes,s there'l always be a London. Perhaps it is like that legendary boat of Greek antiquity, the Argo. In the course of many years journeying, its timbers, all of them, were gradually replaced. But when the ship finally came back into port it was immediately recognized. The boat's form, and with it, its spirit remained.

Some things I suppose can only be the fruit of experience. Sample London, if you haven't already, and see what I mean.


As with the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, many motives sustain the appeal of travel nowadays. Some must travel for business. This has always been something of a burden. I remember once attending a conference in Amsterdam that was so demanding that I couldn’t even squeeze in a visit to the Rijksmuseum! The increasing aggravations of air travel (some of them quite unnecessary in my view) have hit business travelers hard.

Many travel for pure recreation. They like to get some sun in the winter, or just unwind from the stress of a demanding job.

Neither has been my way. I travel, I must avow, as a culture vulture, pur sang. In part I am seeking the stimulus of another way of life, to savor it for its own sake and to compare it with my own. There are languages to be practiced. Then as an art historian I look for art and architecture. In practice this often means ruins. Thus Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru are high on my list in the Americas. By contrast Argentina and Chile do not rate. I respond to almost any form of cuisine, but that is never my primary reason. Thank goodness, or my girth would be even greater than it is.

The group of culture seekers divides into two groups. The first prizes immersion. They like to linger in some particular spot-—say, a French mountain village, the West of Ireland, or the back country of Japan’s main island. There they savor the special qualities of their choice to the full.

I am not one of those. Since resources are finite and one can only travel for a few weeks out of the year I like to see as many things as I can. Of course as I am getting older I have had to slow down a bit. A case in point is my trip to Germany in July. The “hook” for this trip was a big show in Essen of Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite artists. The exhibition fully lived up to expectations. In Essen I was also able to sample something of the industrial archaeology (beautifully restored) of this German Pittsburgh. Then I went on to Cologne, a delightful city in every way, chock full of eloquent ancient monuments. (I must admit that I skipped out on an opportunity to go back to the Roman-German Museum). Then it was on to Aachen, city of Charlemagne, whose palace church figures in my first published art-historical article. I ended up in Düsseldorf, a modern, go-getter city I don’t care for—but at least I now have some idea of what the place is like.

In my experience one must keep up a good pace because one may not go that way again. This restriction is not necessarily of one’s own volition. I have visited six Islamic countries—Morocco (twice), Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Turkey (twice), and Indonesia. I enjoyed them all, but now doesn’t seem the time to initiate a travel program in that realm.

One lesson I learned way back is that one must be a trooper-—keep going! Mid-July was one of the worst hot spells ever in Germany, and they don’t believe in air conditioning. But I fulfilled the plan, and am glad I did. Still, I don’t know if I am trooper enough to handle the increasing rigors of air travel. In my view, this latest crisis about the fluids is overhyped, but it seems that people are sheep who will put up with almost anything if it is couched in terms of “security.”

There is an alternative to difficult trips. Paradoxically, one can do it in the comfort of one’s own home. So I returned to do some interior travel, staying within the bounds of my apartment. The other day I “revisited” Rio in the form of some spiffy new guidebooks on the architectural riches of the city. In sheer physical terms Rio de Janeiro is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. I won’t be going back—except that I did, the other day.

There is another, more ethereal form of “traveling,” and that is purely in the realm of the mind. I have been grappling with Mallarmé and the Symbolists for my fall course at Hunter College. September 6 is the moment of truth, when these old bones face the eager faces of the students once again.