Monthly Archives: May 2011

No, It’s Not the Rapture

Hey readers: just so you know, this blog’s going on vacation for a couple of weeks. My family is coming into town tomorrow morning, via Heathrow, and we’ll be touring London and England at large, eating like crazy, and catching up on a year of stuff. My mother will get to converse with somebody who’s not an engineer or a physics major, and my brother will get to see England for the first time. It’s going to be a fun two weeks.

The upshot is that I probably won’t have time to post or write. Don’t worry; it’s not the Rapture, just a holiday. I’m very proud to have been Left Behind with all the cool kids. I’ll try to be back around June 6.

Until then, have a good month of May, read some of my friends’ cool blogs, and if you see any Rapture-ready believers who look seriously bummed out, please pat them on the back and tell them to cheer up and enjoy the life they’ve got.

What are you waiting for? You can be enraptured whenever you like.

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Pointless White Male Angst in American Literature

Two recent events have directed my attention to the acclaimed generation of post-World War II American novelists. First, I read my first Saul Bellow novel, his celebrated Herzog (actually I’d previously read half of The Dean’s December). Second, the Man Booker International, a sort of cheesy spin-off of the Man Booker Prize judged by only three people who give the award to an author rather than a book, awarded their 2011 prize to Philip Roth–but not without objections. Indeed, one of the three judges, Carmen Callil, actually resigned in protest, saying, “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Such a big meanie!

Never mind that Callil might have other interests in play (her publishing house printed the memoir of Roth’s ex-wife). I can understand where she’s coming from. Allow me to circuitously explain why.

As I read Bellow’s novel Herzog, two courses of thought ran through my mind. The first was envy of Bellow’s obviously excellent prose; he has a creative way with metaphor and his descriptions can be brilliantly focused. The second was irritation. Our protagonist, Moses Herzog, is a fairly successful professor with an unfinished book in his closet, a preposterously evil ex-wife, a preposterously easy Spanish lover, and a preposterous mountain of emotional problems which cause him to spend all his time writing letters to people in his head. I thought this was going to be funny, but ultimately it ended up tiresome.

Herzog, see, is a character who suffers from a disorder I call Pointless White Male Angst.

pointless white male angst. (noun). Disorder suffered by numerous men in late-20th-century American fiction, all of whom are written by male authors. Characterized by modest professional success, some measure of material well-being, but deep and seemingly unending wells of moroseness brought about by excessive concern with mortality, repressed sexuality, or a vague, unidentified discontent which the reader is asked to blame on American materialistic culture. In most cases the sufferer seeks help in the form of a strong woman who serves no other narrative purpose. In many cases the sufferer is Jewish. Examples: Moses Herzog, Rabbit Angstrom, Bob Slocum, Bruce Gold, Albert Corde, Ben Turnbull, Duddy Kravitz, Alexander Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, Nathan Zuckerman, Frank Bascombe, Gary and Chip Lambert.

Variants include emotional problems caused by immediate crises and therefore not actually angst per se but genuine distress (Walter Berglund, Nick Shay, John Yossarian), teenagers (Holden Caulfield), and those rare characters who are actually sympathetic (Yossarian, Alvy Singer). Notice that there are four academic characters and two writers on the list. Notice, too, that Philip Roth appears three times. I could have even added Roth’s fictionalized character “Philip Roth.”

Or Larry Gopnik, but his main problem was that the Coen Brothers decided to spend a whole movie screwing around with him, and his means of coping was to be defiantly angst-free.

Which bring us back to Philip Roth, who, aside from a few admittedly great novels, has expended a career on the development of Pointless White Male Angst and especially its sexual side. Portnoy, remember, had sex with his family’s dinner long before American Pie. Mickey Sabbath is maybe, after Humbert Humbert, the most sexually depraved character ever written. But Humbert Humbert is strangely content, and Vladimir Nabokov’s prose is beyond comparison.

So I definitely understand Carmen Callil’s point of view. Roth, like Bellow and post-Catch 22 Heller, is a gifted writer with good-to-astounding prose skills but generally unable to write characters who live outside the narrow purview of his own experience. All too many of Roth’s novels expand on the same theme: a privileged Jewish man is obsessed with sexual exploitation of the female, perhaps as an escape from an all-pervading pessimism which settles on his mind like a thick, low fog.

I’m even more sympathetic to Callil because she’s female. Roth’s women are almost all sexual props for the men–Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater are all about male libidos. In Bellow’s Herzog, too, there are only two important women: Madeleine, a calculating villain who tries to make Herzog’s life miserable and Ramona, a hot Spaniard who gives Herzog lots of lovin’. The fact that the female characters were all cardboard cutouts, there to either emasculate or, uh, erect the protagonist, made me think of the novel as having a downright 18th-century approach to gender and femininity. It’s no wonder women feel excluded from that kind of author.

There is, of course, a place for angst in our literature. Life is short and then we die. There’s a lot of suffering in the world. You and I are going to lose a lot of people and chances and pleasures. A friend suggested to me that characters like Sabbath, Herzog, and Turnbull have the time “to actually think about the human condition”; in that sense, their comparative success gives them the “leisure” necessary to start worrying. Maybe they’re antithetical to my own young, idealistic mindset (“there’ll be time to worry later!”), but I also feel like there must be ways of addressing issues like mortality without creating characters who navel-gaze, whine, and lust. And why are they all so academic, so masculine? Where are all the angsty women?

Mental illness doesn't count, Ms Plath.

Maybe it’s just that I’m fed up with Pointless White Male Angst, but very nearly an entire generation of authors is simply uninteresting to me. Their writings are outdated and many of them are not even dead. The preoccupation with sex seems gauche now, the preoccupation with death neurotic; the paranoid disposition must have been a child of the Cold War. The lily-white, all-male casts of characters were regressive even then. Even the male facing death alone is better-portrayed elsewhere, by Chandler, Hemingway, and the family Corleone.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if, in 50 years, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Richler, Heller, Ford and Delillo are mainly remembered, outside of a couple truly standout novels, as stylistic virtuosi and solid craftsmen who took the easy way out in settling for dime-a-dozen moroseness in the face of luxury. Only the privileged can afford to be morose. The people who have real stuff to complain about write Invisible Man.

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How to Live with Irish Terrorists

1. Arrive at the British Library for a day’s work researching 1700s musical performances. Have a sandwich and start browsing old newspaper clippings with nary a care in the world.

2. Discover, on the internet, that a serious bomb threat has been reported to Metropolitan police, claiming to target an unspecified time and place in central London.

3. Worry about this for a couple of minutes, but also kind of wonder just how cocky you have to be to warn the police that you’ve planted a bomb.

4. See that the bombers are Irish. Spend a few moments on Wikipedia reading up on various Irish armed movements and the demands they’ve traditionally made. Read further on all the chaos they’ve caused, and crack a nothing-a-Guinness-couldn’t-solve joke to a friend. Wonder why on earth they’ve decided to return; discover a depressing news story from a few weeks ago about a young police officer in Belfast murdered by a car bomb.

5. Decide that you can’t possibly be in danger at the Rare Books room of the British Library and work until 4 p.m.

6. Completely forget about the bomb scare on the Underground journey home, because the Irish Republicans have not quite worked out al-Qaeda’s tactic of targeting transportation networks. This is confirmed when you arrive home and read that the focus of police sweeps is the neighborhood around Buckingham Palace.

Because if anything can make the IRA's blood boil, it's this.

7. Let Mom know you’re back in your room and that nobody’s going to attack East London any time soon, or indeed ever, probably. Warm up some leftover curry from the night before and start writing.

8. By the next day, forget about the whole thing completely. See that the Queen is now in Ireland and assume that she’s probably a bigger target. Realize that it is exactly the Jaded London Local thing to do to dismiss this whole thing as one of those distractions inherent to living in The City. Confirm your flippancy about the whole thing by writing a blog post trivializing the whole affair, while at the same time realizing that you aren’t trivializing it because quite possibly the terrorists just wanted to make everyone nervous.

9. Hope karma isn’t taking notes.

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How to Live (In Dutch)

This past week I spent three days in the Netherlands on a class trip. Our department gets together for a big end-of-year field trip every spring, to the beautiful medieval city of Leiden, hitting Den Haag (The Hague) and Antwerp along the way. We saw two terrific museums, one of the most glorious libraries in the world, Rubens’ house, and a street-performing pianist. I tried eight brands of beer. And I also discovered that, if any country’s personality is suited to mine, it’s the Netherlands’.

Holland is a relaxed, comfortable place. But it is not relaxed and comfortable out of complacency or apathy, or laziness. Holland is the kind of country which has seriously thought about its own philosophy and come to the conclusion that being tolerant, easy-going, and remarkably comfortable in its own skin is just the best way to live.

We remarked to each other on the first night that everyone, everyone, seemed to be confident in themselves. Our waitresses were cheery, our tablemates at restaurants were accommodating and curious, random strangers were generous with directions, and everyone seemed to carry themselves with an air of content. A museum clerk told us that, since they were closing soon, she was afraid we’d be wasting our ticket money. She didn’t want us to go away; she wanted to save us a bother. I know the Dutch can’t possibly all be like that, but the moody, hostile ones did a good job hiding from us. Even the drunks were friendly.

So I guess it’s good karma they got allotted such a gorgeous country. Actually, they created a lot of it, by fighting back the ocean, so it’s not so much karma as hard work. But all our visits were to lovely places.

Den Haag was our base. It’s a city filled with diplomats, politicians, and attorneys, and the restaurants charge like they know they’re going on an expense account. The crowds simply evaporate after work hours, as they do in the center of any political capital, but if you know where to look, life springs up like water from a natural well. A chain of little squares lined with cafes, a couple of tiny, little-used side streets (on one of which a street mime greeted us with the enthusiasm of someone who is clearly miming on the wrong street), the cute little trams wending through the streets, a park and pond on the north side of Parliament.

Doesn't this look lovely?

Calling Den Haag the dullest city we visited is not really to insult Den Haag. It’s just not meant to be a thrilling place; it’s all about the business of national and international politics. And the citizenry can still let their hair down in excellent style, at places like the Grote Markt, a tiny square lined with bars, covered with tables and benches, and bedecked in Christmas lights.

Wednesday midnight view of the Grote Markt from inside the Black Knight bar

Leiden is, by contrast, stunning. Actually, that’s not quite the word; the word is “huggable.” I’m sure it’s abnormal to want to hug an entire city, but Leiden is just so cute, cheery, and instantly welcoming that no other reaction would be appropriate. The centuries-old architecture has been perfectly preserved, since only a handful of areas were damaged in the wars, and the center of the old city is lined with canals. Along the canals run little streets filled with bicycling locals and cafes, except on one canal where the cafe tables are on barges permanently moored to land. Naturally, we found one such and I took my hot chocolate on a boat.

We ate at the place on the far right. Also: told you this place was huggable

In Leiden, our class was visiting two historic sights: a science history museum, the Boerhaave, and a research library, the Bibliotheca Thysiana. The latter is the library of a 1600s scholar, Johannes Thysius, preserved as closely to the original collection as possible (some 1700s students pinched a few volumes) and in the original room, with the original decor. Thysius collected jaw-dropping books: the first Bible printed in Dutch, an illustrated Bible with glorious hand-done color illustrations on nearly every page, and a gigantic book that a retired fencing instructor wrote to impress (it was dedicated “To all the Emperors, Kings, Princes, and Dukes in the World”) with amazing illustrations showing all the steps of fencing moves taking place in various ridiculous settings: ancient Egyptian tombs, French palaces, mountain-tops, fancy gardens. As early book scholars, we all geeked out.

The science history museum had a lot of good stuff too, including the only surviving thermometers actually built by Mr. Fahrenheit, and a replica of the lecture-halls where Renaissance doctors conducted human anatomy lessons:

The table at the bottom is where the fun happened. Students watched standing in the rings. If they knocked over the random animal skeletons, they got an F.

On the way back, at the end of the trip, we stopped for a half-day just over the border in Belgium, at Antwerp, which after the sleepier towns of Den Haag and Leiden felt like a cosmopolitan center. It is–parts feel a bit like west London but without the glamour or price tags–but it’s also centered on a wonderfully preserved center and it teems with cheery life. On the day we visited, the government had decided to simply make all museums in the entire city free, so we visited the home of painter Peter Paul Rubens and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, a collection of old printing presses and tools in a period mansion.

Between paintings of fat people, Rubens kept a lovely garden.

Naturally, I wanted to complete the Holy Trinity of Belgian cuisine: waffles, chocolate, and beer. But, despite the abundance of little waffle stands, I didn’t accomplish that goal (insert grumbling about group members wanting to hurry). Nevertheless, on the square seated before Antwerp’s surprising (and very tall) cathedral, we found a chocolate shop run by a lovely woman who offered trays of samples, mocked the Belgian corporate chocolatiers, and sold me some boxes which I’m very proud not to have finished already.

We also found The Eleventh Commandment, a bar bedecked with religious paraphernalia in every cranny and on every shelf:

We played "Name That Saint." I scored zero points.

And the best thing about The Eleventh Commandment (aside from the fact that its subtitle–yes, it has a subtitle–is “Thou Shalt Enjoy”)? They serve only beers brewed in monasteries.

See, the Dutch/Flemish have life figured out. They have exactly the right attitude. Always keep a sense of humor. Treat nothing with reverence but everything with respect–yeah, the bar is meant to be amusing, but monks still do make the best booze. Take life seriously, but be casual about it. Stop every once in a while to read in the park, or have a coffee on a barge in the canal. Have the clock towers play Bach at the top of the hour. Walk or bike everywhere–the cities have almost no cars anywhere. Take enjoyment seriously. Be so tolerant of sexualities and drugs that they aren’t even tempted into flamboyant backlash. Preserve history with care but live in the 21st century. Take it easy, not because it’s easy but because it’s right.

I have to love a country (we’re lumping Flanders and Holland together here) where mimes try to earn money on little side streets. I have to love a country where bars opposite cathedrals have saintly decor and heavenly brews. I have to love a country where train cars are double-deckers. I have to love a country where all the bicycles look like they were made in 1950. And I have to love a country that has street-performing pianists. I can’t help it. These are cities that know how to live.

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Five Big Elections Since 1860

Yesterday, Republican presidential contender, alternative-history writer and professional adulterer Newt Gingrich told an audience that the 2012 election will be, according to an Associated Press report, “the most consequential since 1860.” This is wrong. Here, chronologically, are five elections since 1860 which featured far higher stakes than the 2012 race as it stands today.

1. 1864. What Gingrich is forgetting, despite having co-authored several rather silly novels on the American Civil War, is that Abraham Lincoln could very well have lost the 1864 election. An anti-war candidate, the former general George B. McClellan, ran on a platform promising to bring fighting to a halt and negotiate with the Confederacy. In truth, McClellan (whose record in the war is notable for its spectacular incompetence) supported fighting to win, but his party promised a truce and his vice presidential candidate was anti-war. Conceivably, the 1864 election could have produced an independent Confederate States of America. But for the first time, states arranged for soldiers in the field to vote via mail, and, since 78% of the troops supported Lincoln, Abe pulled through with 55% of the popular vote.

Fun side note: Abraham Lincoln did not run as a Republican. He was head of the specially-created “National Union Party.”

2. 1912. The craziest election in American history, perhaps, at least until 2000. For the first and so far only time in our history, three viable candidates proposed three very different visions of America’s future. The Republican, William Howard Taft, was accused by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, of being too slow to endorse needed reform, so TR led the Progressive Party in a surge back from retirement. The split in center-right votes led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, who, during his first term, would choose to avoid war in Europe. Roosevelt, always raring to go, would likely have had us fighting by the end of 1914. TR also made voting rights for women a higher priority than Wilson did, though the Democrat eventually got that job done.

3. 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected in place of the unlucky, unimaginative, unhelpful Herbert Hoover. FDR went on to transform America like no president since, well, his cousin Theodore. His economic policies’ effectiveness is still debated among scholars today, though his leadership over a dozen of our most important years is not. Well, we could have kept Hoover.

Fun side note: Vermont voted for Herbert Hoover. Clearly there weren’t any hippies in 1932.

4. 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Race riots broke out. Protests got violent at the Chicago convention. The Vietnam War was collapsing into disaster. A third-party candidate running on an explicitly racist platform to reinstate segregation won five states. The South turned away, en masse, from the Democratic Party it had supported for generations. Richard Nixon’s margin of victory in the popular vote was 0.7%. I’m sorry, Newt, but if you think the Tea Party is as angry and powerful a force for change as the anti-war or civil rights movements of the 1960s, you are an arrogant fool.

5. 2008. Heck, this election isn’t even as important as the last one. That one featured our first major female candidate, our first major female vice-presidential candidate [EDIT: forgot Geraldine Ferraro, thanks to a commenter for reminding me], our first major black candidate, two ongoing and apparently unwinnable wars, an economy collapsing around us as the sitting president watched helpless, rising unemployment rates, and, in the center of the storm, two of the more reasonable nominees of recent times. Or so it seemed until one of them chose, as a running mate, the most singularly incompetent member of a vote-getting party ticket since George Wallace in 1968.

I find it hard to believe that Newt has forgotten the decisiveness of the 2008 election. No matter who won, John McCain or Barack Obama, America would be trying to shake off the hangover from one of its worst-ever presidencies, trying to end two wars as well as possible and halt an impending economic collapse too. No matter who won, McCain or Obama, America would be ushering in a new era and voting for a new set of values.

I guess what I’m saying is this: in 2008, many pundits said they thought they were watching the most important election in forty years. They probably were. Now, in 2011, Newt Gingrich thinks the next election will be the most important in one hundred forty years. It won’t be. Heck, it won’t even be the most important election we’ve had in the last four.

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Bin Laden Home Linked to California Company

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The $1 million compound in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found was constructed in 2005 by an American real estate corporation, local records show.

The complex, a three-story building surrounded by twelve- to eighteen-foot walls, with a large forecourt for the burning of trash, corresponds in design with a model home designed and constructed by California’s Bluth Company. Bluth Company founder George Bluth was ousted several years ago, and faced charges of light treason when it was revealed that his corporation had constructed residences for Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. He was eventually released.

According to sources who have seen it, the home located inside the compound is designed to the nearly same specifications as a home in which current CEO Michael Bluth and his son, George-Michael, live in Orange County. Customizations for the bin Laden residence evidently included additional sectional walls, privacy barriers, barbed-wire fencing, and a seven-foot wall around the rooftop patio.

“It just looked American, like Cape Cod design or whatever,” one of the Navy SEALs who participated in the raid said over a midnight teleconference. He asked that his identity not be revealed, before adding, “it was kind of like my grandma’s place in Mission Viejo.”

The Bluth Company has declined comment. Michael Bluth did not immediately return requests for interviews, and one family friend suggested that he may have fled to Mexico in the family yacht.

The company is not renowned for its construction quality, having faced numerous complaints in the past; it once built a model home which comprised a hollow facade. The Navy SEAL seemed unimpressed with the handiwork of the Pakistani complex, situated just north of the resort town of Abbottabad.

“It was a mess in there,” the SEAL said. “They’d obviously tried to mount a flat-screen TV on the wall, and half the wall just collapsed under it. The first season of Breaking Bad was still in its shrink wrap.”

The news exacerbates an already uncertain future for the Bluth Company, which has already been labeled a “junk” stock on CNBC, and which has seen its last few years of production halted by cancellation of major projects. Public opinion had not yet begun to forget its association with Hussein, and the Bluths’ image may now be tainted beyond repair.

Reached at an undisclosed location, family patriarch George Bluth Sr., who claimed to have dealt with Hussein by mistake and indeed was initially unaware he was speaking to a reporter this afternoon, ended the phone call after angrily remarking, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

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Post-Osama

At 8:58 PM London time, May 1, 2011, a Lahore software developer named Sohaib Athar, who had withdrawn to a secluded mountain resort town called Abbottabad to escape crowded city life, wrote the following message on Twitter: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” Over the next few minutes, he heard “a huge window shaking bang” and chatted with friends who confirmed that the helicopter had disappeared but that another was around. He then heard more bangs and wrote, “Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicpoters, and since they’re saying it was not “ours”, so must be a complicated situation.”

A little over 800 feet away, Osama bin Laden was shot in the head during a gunfight with American special forces.

The news was announced by US President Barack Obama at about 4 AM this morning, here; by the time I was awake, American newspapers had splashed the story across their front pages (English papers were already printed), and the Internet was flooded with jokes mocking the dead terrorist (“should have gone with the hollowed out volcano” – David Waldman). I’ve had three waves of reaction.

The first was a simple, “wow, this is big.” We’ve spent nine years and seven months in war with al-Qaeda, and well over fifteen years trying to capture or kill its mastermind, and now, after that decade, its leader is finally dead. This feels like the end of an era.

But the second reaction is: no, it’s not. This is one man. He has been living, probably since 2005, in a massive mansion with 16-foot-high walls but with, importantly, no telephone line or other connection to the outside world. If he has had any role in al-Qaeda over recent years, it has been through his favored courier, who owned the house and taped his videos. In other words, practically speaking, our main enemy right now is the several dozen copycats who have set up their own terror cells. This doesn’t really change all that much.

On the other hand, my third reaction goes, Osama bin Laden’s death is big, but it is big for our past and not our future. The families of those killed on September 11, and, lest we forget, on the U.S.S. Cole, at several African embassies, in the temples at Luxor, and in Afghanistan since 2001 will perhaps feel some degree of closure. The soldiers and intelligence officers who have given years of their lives to the cause of bringing about some measure of punishment for bin Laden’s unspeakable crimes have finally seen their efforts vindicated.

But, beyond the symbolic value and the closing of a too-long chapter of the book, not much is going to change because of this. We now know Pakistan is not to be trusted (bin Laden lived down the street from their West Point). We now know that al-Qaeda is effectively leaderless. We know, from the reaction in the Middle East, that outside from a few fringe lunatics the terrorists really do not have any public support.

But that’s it. Killing Osama bin Laden won’t improve conditions in Afghanistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or Iran, or Iraq; killing Osama bin Laden won’t change the to-do list in the Middle East; killing Osama bin Laden won’t have a big impact on politics in America, either. My reaction, in other words, is that this feels like a big deal, because it writes the ending of a dark story, but this really does not change anything.

A fellow blogger named Issandr El Amrani, writing from Cairo for The Arabist, has said basically the same thing, but in fewer words: “symbolically this is important for the US, and for the families of the victims of 9/11.” But, “by the time he died it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region.”

Indeed. The story of Osama bin Laden is that of a man whose determination to kill civilians and violence toward fellow Muslims (and all human life) made him hated even in his own region, marginalized into a corner with fellow monsters. Now that he is dead, we can feel relief and a small primal twinge of satisfaction. And then we must get back to work.

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