Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Books in Boxes

Preparing to move back to Istanbul, we've been going through all the junk that we've kept in storage the past 5 years. This involves asking repeatedly, "Why did we save this?" when running across old cassette tapes, coffee mugs, and contact lens cases. Probably, we saved them because we were too lazy/disorganized to throw them away 5 years ago.

Anyway, this exercise offers the opportunity to go through boxes of books that I've been wishing I had access to those 5 years. Before we put them in storage initially, I gave a lot of books away (for better or worse), and I'm sure to give a few more away now before we pack the rest into sturdier boxes and have them shipped to Istanbul. In a couple of months, I hope to be placing them on shelves in our new home.

In the meantime, here's something I dug out, from Denis Johnson's Car Crash While Hitchhiking:

I was standing out here in the night, with the baby, for some reason, in my arms. It must have still been raining, but I remember nothing about the weather. We'd collided with another car on what I now perceived was a two-lane bridge. The water beneath us was invisible in the dark.
Moving toward the other car I began to hear rasping, metallic snores. Somebody was flung halfway out the passenger door, which was open, in the posture of one hanging from a trapeze by his ankles. The car had been broadsided, smashed so flat that there was no room inside even for this person's legs, to say nothing of a driver or any other passengers. I just walked right on past.
Headlights were coming from far off. I made for the head of the bridge, waving them to a stop with one arm and clutching the baby to my shoulder with the other.
It was a big semi, grinding its gears as it decelerated. The driver rolled down his window and I shouted up at him, "There's a wreck. Go for help."
"I can't turn around here," he said.
He let me and the baby up on the passenger side, and we just sat there in the cab, looking at the wreckage in the headlights.
"Is everybody dead?" he asked.
"I can't tell who is and who isn't," I admitted. He poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos and switch off all put the parking lights.
"What time is it?"
"Oh, it's around quarter after three," he said.
By his manner, he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved and tearful. I'd thought something was required of me, but I hadn't wanted to find out what it was.
When another car showed coming in the opposite direction, I thought I should talk to them. "Can you keep the baby?" I asked the truck driver.
"You'd better hang on to him," the driver said. "It's a boy, isn't it?"
"Well, I think so," I said.
The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea of how really badly broken he was, and I made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn't be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person's life on this earth. I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real.

We'll see whether all these books make it to Istanbul.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Mamet Renounces "Brain-Dead Liberal" Self

Playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, essayist, children's author, theologian, social critic, drama critic, amateur sociologist, cartoonist of modest talent, and fan of con games and magic acts, David Mamet has concluded that his lifelong liberal convictions are, more or less, a pile of unexamined and highly derivative horseshit.

Better late than never.

Writing in the Village Voice, Mamet recounts his path to revelation. He used to believe that governments were corrupt, corporations evil, and militaries murderous, but people, at heart, basically good. He's now realized that governments,corporations, and militaries are actually made up of people (allegedly, at heart, good), and this has thrown a spanner into his worldview.

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. "?" [sic] she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as "a brain-dead liberal," and to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio."

This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

This is fairly basic stuff, but more significantly, perhaps, he has come to realize that the liberal temperament assumes the attainability of a world - perhaps not perfect - but flawed only by minor glitches and imperfections, whereas, to the conservative mind, life always encompasses the tragic, and we'd do well not to compound tragedy in our zeal to abolish it.

The liberal - or at least, extreme liberal - vision, being profoundly optimistic, tends to induce only greater frustration and impatience over time, since it strives toward the attainment of a near Paradise, made possible if only the right people come to power and implement a few obvious and utterly benign reforms. Who could object to a better world? Hence, the tendency of millenarian revolutions and cult societies to resort to bloodshed when Paradise fails to arrive on cue.

Paradoxically, one of the difficulties of espousing a conservative vision in most Western societies is not that life, from day to day, is such an irremediable disaster, but that, it so often isn't. Things may not work perfectly, but they often enough work well enough to seduce us into believing that we can, by dint of political activism, make them work a whole lot better. In other words, things are so wrong because they could be so right. Again, who could object to a better world?

We Americans have a weakness for believing that there is no problem so intractable as to be beyond a solution. We take an almost algebraic approach to any human failing, believing only that the right combination of research, methodology, and funding will rid us of everything from childhood aggression to teen pregnancy to violent crime to middle-aged despair (old age we simply deny). As Mamet acknowledges, despite his sense that, from an overarching point of view, the world is characterized by invidious corruption and greed, on the personal level, that is, on the level of his own experience, things generally work rather well.

I rather like Mamet's plays, or at least the ones that I've seen (on video, of course), but to be honest, I don't find his prose any more lucid or compelling than that of a decent part-time blogger. I mean this not only of the piece that he's currently written, but of the essays of his that I've read as well. You may judge for yourself, but his political insights seem fairly pedestrian to me, and he talks an awful lot about the theater, as always.

Still, he seems to have realized that though from the liberal perspective life proceeds through a series of crimes and brutalities, which in fact it often does, on the personal level, where life is actually lived, it usually works better than we have any reason to expect. Mamet ultimately concludes that we're probably better off maintaining the personal latitude to figure out how to live it.

There is, of course, a more concise way of saying all of this. I used to know a guy named Wes who once observed that, "For this world to be perfect, everything would have to be different."

To both David and Wes, I say indeed.

Addendum: Here, you may read a Salon interview of the pre-conservative, "Brain-Dead Liberal" David Mamet. You can also view the Alec Baldwin motivational speech from Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Eternal Return

Recently, Steve Sailer blogged about Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, which brought to mind an encounter, or sequence of encounters, between a friend of mine, Roger, and Daniel Day-Lewis years ago, which then brought to mind a post I'd myself written in Istanbul, late the night before my family and I were due to board a plane, after four years in Turkey, and return to America.

My own post had to do with the circuitous way that lives sometimes wind round each other, and people, sometimes strangers, find their lives intersecting once, twice, even thrice, over various points in space and time. Obviously, modern technology (the airplane, primarily) makes this just slightly less miraculous.

But back to Daniel Day-Lewis. Somewhere in the early 90s, my friend Roger abandoned his pursuit of a PhD in French at Chapel Hill (he just couldn't see himself struggling to hold the wayward interests of 18 year olds for the rest of his life), and, at a loss for what to do next, retreated to his ancestral home of Columbus, Georgia, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

There, in something approximating bewilderment and despair, Roger located for himself a garage apartment, took up work at the Columbus Historical Society, and attempted to resign himself to the next half century of waiting in vain for something of significance, even he wasn't sure what, to occur.

One afternoon, while strolling home from work, he wandered into a card shop. His idle browsing was interrupted by the luminous presence of a woman wrapped entirely in white, an atypical clothing choice in Columbus. Intrigued, Roger gazed a half second longer, then another half second, then approached.

There was a certain . . . something. More than attraction. Familiarity. He finally summoned his nerve. "Excuse me," he said, "I know this will sound strange, but I couldn't help noticing that you bear the most remarkable resemblance to Isabelle Adjani, the French actress. Has anyone ever told you this before?"

She arched an eyebrow slightly. "That is because I am Isabelle Adjani." Immediately, Roger segued effortlessly into French. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

Adjani explained that she was staying at the local Hilton, or something, with her companion Daniel Day-Lewis, who was at that moment just across the state line in Alabama, studying with a woodsman in preparation for his role in Last of the Mohicans. Evidently, DDL was honing his skills in fire building and rabbit skinning while wearing a coonskin cap, that sort of thing. After some time, Adjani fixed my friend in a curious stare, then asked, in French naturalment, "And what are you doing here?"

Roger couldn't help but laugh. After he'd explained the sequence of events leading him back to his hometown, Adjani casually asked, "Why not join us for dinner? Daniel will be returning this evening."

Before arriving at their hotel, Roger, whose manners are well rooted in a prior century - and not the 20th - arranged for flowers to be delivered to their room. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Isabelle, and ushered into their suite. There, in a corner, dressed in black and smoking a cigarette, sat Daniel. Despite the Euro-Hollywoodish trappings, and their color-contrasting taste in apparel, Daniel and Isabelle turned out to be warm dinner companions. Roger discussed with them his ambitions to leave Columbus behind, and, if possible to make his way to Europe. They exchanged addresses at the end of the evening, and Isabelle and Daniel promised to do anything they could to assist Roger in his bid to relocate to Europe - Paris, most particularly. The next day, Roger found himself in the stunning heat of Wet Willie's Waterslide, relating to his sister the events of the previous evening, squinting against the sunlight, enduring the kids' squeals of hydraulic joy, and pondering the wistful incongruity of it all.

Some years later, after much searching, Roger managed to secure a job interview with Nato, and fervently hoped that this might at last be his ticket out of Columbus and on to Europe. He arranged to fly into Paris, where he would stay with a friend for a week before heading on to Brussels and the interview. Arriving at the Atlanta airport, Roger checked his bags, made his way to the International Concourse, and started into space while biding his time and waiting to board the plane.

His eye eventually settled on a lone figure, dressed in black, wearing sunglasses, and slouched against a far wall. There was a certain . . . something. Could it be? It looked like it was, but how could you tell with the sunglasses, and even if it was, he wouldn't remember a dinner in a hotel suite years earlier.

A few moments later, the black-clad figure glanced from behind the shades in Roger's direction, straightened, then approached. "Roger," he said smiling, "what are you doing here?"

They were booked on the same flight to Paris. After catching up on old news, DDL invited Roger to join him in first-class for a drink once they were airborne. Once the plane was en route, however, Roger was stopped cold by the flight attendant, who informed him that - invitation or no - he wasn't allowed in the first-class section. At that point, DDL intervened, explaining that he had specifically asked Roger to join him for a drink. Nothing doing.

"Do you have a foot stool, then?" asked DDL.

"A foot stool, yes, we do."

"Would you put the stool in the aisle next to my friend's seat, and I'll join him for a drink there?" Day-Lewis asked. Which is what they, and he, did.

When the flight landed, Isabelle was at the airport, waiting to meet Daniel. The three were briefly reunited, and Isabelle and Daniel asked for the phone number of the apartment where Roger would be staying. They then agreed to meet up a few nights later for dinner.

Sadly, Roger only discovered after having been met by his host in Paris that he'd recently moved to a new apartment, and that the phone number which had been given to Daniel and Isabelle was no longer in service.

Roger had no way of contacting them, and never saw them again. After a week in Paris, he went to his Nato interview in Brussels, eventually resulting in reimbursement for the cost of his flight, and a polite letter of rejection. Some time later, Daniel and Isabelle had a son together, resulting in the quick demise of their relationship. Day-Lewis is now married to Arthur Miller's daughter, with whom he has two sons. I know nothing more about the life of Isabelle Adjani.

Roger eventually escaped Columbus, and landed on the Upper West Side, about a block from the Museum of Natural History. I visited him there in 2003, when I was in New York to obtain my residency visa for Turkey, a country I'd never before visited, and in which I was soon to live. After some slightly tense to and fro with the ladies of the Turkish consulate, I left New York with my visa. Ten days later, I was on my way. Roger, so far as I know, is still in Manhattan.

Speaking of Turkey, in April my family and I will again board a plane, this time back to Istanbul. To live. Again.