Sunday, January 27, 2008

Our Moribund Political Mind

In today's NY Times, Caroline Kennedy has written an endorsement of Barack Obama under the title, "A President Like My Father." Scrolling through her Op-Ed, a few observations come to mind.

First, someone should tell her that alliteration (a habit of my own) can be overdone. "My reasons are patriotic, political and personal . . . . There is a generation coming of age that is hopeful, hard-working, innovative and imaginative. But too many of them are also hopeless, defeated and disengaged."

Second, her endorsement of Obama leans overwhelmingly on his capacity, real or imagined to "inspire." Of course, most children would like think the best of their parents, but it would seem that Caroline, in praising Obama, is rather transparently attempting to breathe new life into the cult of Camelot.

"Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible."

This is a line of political thought, so common as to be pretty much the norm, which I despise. I am not interested in electing a national savior. To elect a national savior is to acknowledge that we are in need of saving, and from whom are we in need of saving, if not ourselves? If, in fact, we are in need of saving from ourselves, then I suspect that all of the current crop of candidates will be found wanting.

I am not arguing that presidential elections are of no consequence (the current president has demonstrated that they are) but rather that what Caroline Kennedy is engaged in, and what she encourages the rest of us to join her in, is something more akin to religious ecstasy than sound deliberation. It seems to me that for much of my life, voters have been "energized" in this manner, and look at where it has gotten us.

Finally, I would like to say something about the Kennedy legacy, and it's appearance in this campaign. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. If you are old enough to remember the failures and accomplishments of the Kennedy administration with any genuine clarity, then you are probably at least 60. For most Americans, the life and death of JFK have no significance apart from the mythic tale that was being spun by his "handlers" before he'd even set foot in the White House.

JFK has become one of those Democratic touchstones, like FDR, by which current candidates, and their operatives, attempt to establish the bona fides of their political ambitions. That Caroline Kennedy's Op-Ed piece is the most emailed article in today's NY Times would indicate that we are increasingly surrendering to our atavistic impulse toward political dynasty. It is only a matter of time before Chelsea Clinton weds Jeb Bush Jr., and America can finally crown the royal family we've been craving all along.

I am not "inspired" by the legacy of JFK, nor that of FDR, nor that of Bill and Hillary, nor - for that matter - of Ronald Reagan. I do not expect a politician to transcend race, or class, or any other category of competing American interests. I don't expect, I hope, more than can be expected. Intelligence, a respect for the bounds of nature, including human nature, and a willingness, when necessary, to speak to the American people as fellow-adults, rather than confused and frightened children, might just be enough.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I am currently reading Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost, published in 1963, and translated from the German in 2006 by Michael Hofmann. You may be unfamiliar with both the life and work of Bernhard. Born in Holland in 1931, he was the bastard son of a high-strung Austrian mother and reprobate laborer father, also Austrian, whom Bernhard never met, but whom subsequent research led him to believe may have been murdered during the Second World War.

Bernhard was only briefly in Holland during his infancy, his mother having been sent there to have her out-of-wedlock child. Mother and son soon returned to their Austrian homeland, where Bernhard came of age in difficult circumstances during and after the war. In his autobiography, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard provides a striking account of his early life, up to the age of 19. He lavishes particular attention on the torments he endured as a schoolboy, most excruciatingly during his tenure as a boarding student at the "National Socialist Home for Boys," which he attended during the war years.

Bernhard's account is precise and unsparing in every way, both of himself and of others. As a teenager, and while barely surviving with his extended family in a tenement, Bernhard deviated from his normal, and much dreaded, path to school, turning instead in the direction of the state labor office. That same day, he began a new life as a grocer's apprentice in a public housing project in Salzberg. One might expect a writer, particularly one as inclined to the shadowed vision as is Bernhard, to recount this experience as one of misery, but in fact, it constituted a tonic and liberation. No longer forced to endure the taunting sarcasm of his teachers, he was free to watch and observe, to speak his mind as did the denizens of the housing project whom he served. In a sense, Bernhard's abandonment of school in favor of the tiny grocery store tucked into the basement of a dreary apartment block initiated him into what would become his life as a writer.

Gathering Evidence is one of Bernhard's best works, more eventful and plot driven than are most of the novels he wrote. Though I am a great admirer of his work, I must admit that many of his novels suffer, at least in patches, from an absence of narrative movement. His characters ponder and ruminate, despair, and savor the ironies of their despair, their thoughts circling back upon themselves. At times, this leads the reader into a narrative cul de sac which . . . well, sometimes amuses, sometimes fascinates, and sometimes bores.

In my opinion, he pulls off this aesthetic trick to best effect in his brief novel, Concrete, the story Austrian musicologist of independent means who has, for the past several years, been attempting to write a ground-breaking study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though he aspires to pen only a brief article, the demands of the assignment - self-imposed, of course - rise to such towering heights that he is unable, throughout the book, ever to settle upon even the first sentence. Concrete is written in the form of a journal, in which the narrator recounts his epochal bout of writer's block, his relationship with his hard-nosed, worldly-wise sister (whose expressions of concern for his welfare move him to both anger and tender affection) as well as a host of other episodes and encounters that crowd his mind and brook him no peace. Though this hardly seems the stuff of comedy, Concrete is suffused with a self-mocking humor. Bernhard knows full well that his protagonist is an absurd creation, that writers, poets, artists and intellectuals are absurd poseurs, and that in fact, it is absurd even to be a human being. A rather Austrian observation, eh?

Anyhow, I've got some business to attend to today, so let me offer a couple of quotations from Frost, to give you a taste of Bernhard's style, or at least, his style as translated into English.

How long was I proposing to stay in Weng, he asked. I needed to get back fairly soon, to prepare for exams in the spring, I said. "As you are studying law," he said, "I'm sure you'll find a job later. There are always jobs for lawyers. I had a nephew once who was a lawyer, only he lost his mind over stacks of files and had to quit his job in the civil service. He wound up in Steinhof. Do you know what that is?" I replied that I had heard of the institution "am Steinhof." "Well then, you'll know what became of my nephew," he said.

Readers familiar with Bernhard's work will know that his friend, Paul Wittgenstein, was a frequent guest at "am Steinhof," during his bouts of periodic madness. Such knowledge of course, only enhances the ominous implication of all that is left unsaid in the passage above.

The tale of Bernhard's friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, is, in part, the story of a beloved friend's descent into madness and despair. At it's end, Bernhard reveals that he declined to attend Paul Wittgenstein's funeral, and has never been able even to visit his grave. All of this is recounted in the brief volume, Wittgenstein's Nephew., and yes, Paul was the nephew (or cousin) of the renowned philosopher Ludwig, which again, adds greater dimension to the tragedy.

One more passage from Frost:

"My time has passed as if I didn't want it. I didn't want it. Sickness is a consequence of my lack of interest in my time, lack of interest, lack of productivity, lack of pleasure. Sickness appeared where there wasn't anything else . . sometimes I jumped out of bed, and slowly I saw all thought become impossible, worthless, everything successively, logically, became pointless and meaningless . . . And I discovered that my surroundings didn't want to be explained by me."

Lovely, in its own strange way.

An interview with Bernhard is linked to here. A review of Frost here. I can't say whether the review is any good, because I didn't bother to read it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Riding on the Metro

Every workday, I drive to a train station, and take Atlanta's version of the Metro, known as MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). Every evening, I ride MARTA back to my car, parked securely in the deck, and make my way home.

Whatever charm this jaunt may offer as an occasional outing disappears after, oh, the fortieth or fiftieth haul. Not much is going to change out the windows of the train. And few experiences are more disheartening than bounding down (or up) the stairs as your train pulls out of the station. Time to start looking for some new graffiti to admire. Occasionally, I even find myself driven to eavesdropping.

Yesterday morning, I overheard the following exchange, between a youngish man and a younger woman sitting together. Acquaintances, I gathered, but not close friends. The young man was describing the tribulations associated with conceiving his first child. Evidently, he and his wife had "struggled" (is it really so hard?), had given up hope, and then had been blessed with a little one. "That's awesome!" the young woman said. To which the young man replied, "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

He then went on to describe some completely unexceptional aspect of parenting, something familiar to anyone who's ever had a kid, or been one, like, I don't know, reading a bedtime story. In response, the young woman exclaimed, "That's awesome!" to which the young man replied, "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

Limited lexicon, apparently.

That afternoon, I overheard two young men at Peachtree Center Station. One was recounting the weekend visit of a friend who "crashed" at his apartment. Every single sentence he uttered was structured as follows: "________ was like ...."

"He was like . . . . And I was like . . . .and then he got like . . . ., and so I was like . . . , so then he got, like, . . . and it was so like . . ."

Evidently, he's dispensed with the superabundance of verbs in the English language.

This morning, I was off for a glorious eleven hour workday (I'm teaching in the evenings, two nights a week) when, while ascending the escalator, I was overtaken by a young woman bounding up the stairs in frantic haste (of which there was no need, as the train wouldn't be arriving for another three minutes). From her anxious grasp slipped a can of Coke Zero, which landed on the edge of the escalator stair directly in front of me, ruptured, and then more or less exploded, covering me in Coke Zero (whatever the fuck that is) from my glasses to my shoes.

"Hey," I shouted to this nerve-addled basket-case who hadn't even bothered to look back while I was being showered in Coke. "I'm going to work!" (I was wearing some nice clothes, or as she might have pronounced it, "cloth-hes.")

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said in her Spanish-inflected English (not that there's anything wrong with it), "It was an accident. I didn't mean to."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I muttered as I wiped Coke "Zeh-roh" from my glasses with my yellow silk tie.

What a pleasure to take the train.