News from ‘thesda

The latest from UD‘s stomping grounds.

A Montgomery County judge has dismissed a couple’s lawsuit alleging that a top private school jeopardized their son’s college career by not doing enough to help him.

The couple accused the Bullis School in Potomac of breaching its contract by failing to help after the boy received a poor grade, causing him to receive rejection letters from colleges.

… The family’s attorney says the school violated oral agreements in advertisements that promoted “an extraordinary educational experience” in a “nurturing environment.” He expects to appeal.

All the way to the Supreme Court.

“Now pass me that bikini and where’s …

… the Soltan?”

The Soltan is currently at home, resting up after having interviewed Fran Lebowitz last night at a George Washington University event.

UD is rather curious in that appearing on the PBS News Hour, where her interview was watched by millions, did not make her nervous, but going to a teeny little reception at a lovely historic Foggy Bottom home scares the bejaysus out of her. I suppose it’s about people being an undifferentiated mass versus people being in your face. So she had her friend Gabe accompany her to the gathering at the president’s house, where we welcomed Lebowitz and where UD introduced herself to Lebowitz as her interviewer.

I have a bunch of questions for you, I said.

Great. I have one answer, she said.

Great, I said. We’ll do variations on that answer.

The evening was pleasantly chilly, with late afternoon sun on budding pears and dogwoods. Gabe and I were joined by Molly McCloskey, a terrific writer who’s in residence at GW this semester. Sweet and ceremonious undergraduates met us at the door of the president’s home, took our coats, and led us to the drinks. We quickly encountered another Ireland-related English professor (Molly lived in Ireland for a long time), and UD had a chance to talk about La Kid’s upcoming departure for Galway.

In formally welcoming Lebowitz, GW’s president made a number of gaffes. He began by calling her the author of many books. She is, famously, the author of not many. He described her as the author of Notes From A Broad. Lebowitz said she is not the author. The author of A View From A Broad is Bette Midler.

Ultimately, UD was willing to be forgiving. Being president of a university means fourteen similar events a day, and his staff screwed up on this one. Big deal.

At some point we trudged over to the auditorium at the public affairs building for the main event. UD took the stage a few moments before Lebowitz came out, and as she sat down the audience hushed. “Don’t get excited,” UD told them. “It’s just me.” UD was damned if Lebowitz was going to get all the laughs.

Lebowitz entered to applause, wished UD a good evening, UD returned the favor, and they were off.

UD began by reminding FL that like a lot of satirists she thinks human beings stink (UD read the following phrases from FL’s writings and interviews: “human nature is horrible …people – they’re not that great …human beings are not the finest species”), and she went on to inquire what’s wrong with us, and how can we fix it. This got a laugh from the audience and seemed to set FL up nicely. She went off on a long riff about our ghastliness. When she finished the riff, UD – who had decided to conduct this interview in a serious way, FL being an intellectual who makes claims about the world, and UD being the sort of person to challenge claims – went on to establish that FL doesn’t believe in hope – finds people who hope contemptible. So UD asked her why she votes, why she’s politically active in New York City issues, etc. If people are unimprovably awful, and if hope about change for the better is contemptible, why do anything? Beyond writing about it?

Which led to further questions about the nature of the satirist in the Swiftian tradition (quoting Orwell here: “Swift’s world-view is felt to be not altogether false — or it would probably be more accurate to say, not false all the time. Swift is a diseased writer. He remains permanently in a depressed mood which in most people is only intermittent, rather as though someone suffering from jaundice or the after-effects of influenza should have the energy to write books. But we all know that mood, and something in us responds to the expression of it. … Part of our minds — in any normal person it is the dominant part — believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence.”) and how odd this particular, pretty nihilistic impulse is…

So we bounced it around for a half hour, and UD kept trying to see if she could land somewhere near as many laughs as FL, and although actually the whole exchange is a bit of a fog, UD seems to recall that she did get her share. UD was also pleased to see that FL took her serious questions seriously, and as a result the interview seemed to UD a cut above a number of the FL interviews on YouTube, which tend to be people tossing softballs (“Talk about Michael Bloomberg.”) at FL.

UD went home on a very late-arriving, very-crowded metro train with her old friend Kim, who also attended the event. They stood and swayed and gabbed, at high volume, for the whole trip.

Snapshots from Home

Tonight UD interviews Fran Lebowitz in a large elegant auditorium at George Washington University.

As you know, UD has been studying Ms Lebowitz in preparation for this event (over-preparation – she’s only interviewing her for thirty minutes), and she has, scholar-squirrel-like, set out four categories of questions for her (plus, if there’s time, UD has a wild card question). The Four Categories:

The Human Animal
Income Inequality and Democracy
Writing and Reading
The Satirist and Happiness.

Here’s the wild card:

In Metropolitan Life, you predicted America’s current immense pain pill addiction problem. You wrote:

Presently it appears that people are mainly concerned with being well rested. Those capable of uninterrupted sleep are much admired. Unconsciousness is in great demand. This is the day of the milligram.

Could you update this remark?

*************

What strikes UD most about Fran Lebowitz is something seldom touched on by people who interview her. She’s a remarkably self-made woman. She was thrown out of high school and simply got her ass over to Manhattan and made her way. She never went to college; she’s all about being educated by solitary reading.

She drove cabs, had the guts to connect with all sorts of people and enterprises… She seems to have appeared in the big city with an achieved sensibility and writing style, along with an outrageous but amply vindicated confidence in her own way of being. No wonder she loves New York City. Cities are designed with people like Lebowitz in mind.

Also with UD‘s old friend Lisa Nesselson in mind. UD finds herself thinking of Lisa when thinking of Lebowitz, except with Lisa the city was Paris and Lisa finished college (the same college UD went to, Northwestern). Lisa seems to have landed in Paris and within seconds decided this was it – her city, forever. When I first stayed with her she lived in a seventh-floor closet-sized walkup on the Boulevard Saint Germain. Communal toilet down the hall. She got to know the woman who owns the building, and now lives in a roomy apartment on the second floor.

Money? Far as I can tell, neither Lebowitz nor Nesselson has ever had much. They are bohemians, and they make do. Honesty and wit have allowed them to push forward and make the world accept — even celebrate — their spiky uncompromised personalities.

Snapshots from Home

On a warm spring night, UD is about to go to the Garrett Park Town Hall, to take notes on this month’s meeting of the town council. As always, she’ll write it up for the Bugle, and, as always, she’ll link you to the write-up.

Later tonight, she’s going to try to be awake for the blood moon.

Last night, she heard a barred owl in a nearby tree.

Breath and Pulse

At George Washington University, where I’m an English professor, two students have committed suicide this semester, one in January, and one last month. A third student death has also lately taken place, not yet confirmed as a suicide.

All universities tremble a little, crouch a little, when suicides happen in succession like these; administrators know about suicide clusters, the weird capacity of the act to embolden others who might be leaning toward self-destruction, and they try to heighten scrutiny – through resident assistants and the like – of their student population in the aftermath of these events. Via their president, they issue – as GW’s president did – university-wide emails that remind people to take care of themselves and each other, to reach out to people who seem troubled, to make use of campus therapists, to call the following phone number if they think they might need counseling.

I’ve read, and blogged, about university student suicides – and other kinds of suicides – for years. I’ve read Hume and Durkheim and Camus. My father committed suicide. I’m teaching modern American poetry this year, which sometimes feels like a suicide-compendium. Each morning as I walk toward the end of the Metro platform on my commute to Foggy Bottom, a sign in front of the train tunnel implores me not to throw myself on the tracks. So many hurl themselves from the Golden Gate bridge that a decision has finally been made to install a mesh net.

Suicide, especially among the promising young, always shocks us; yet it is far from uncommon. Suicide, experts say, is a very impulsive act, and the young are inclined toward impulsivity. A lot of people seem to carry suicidal thoughts around with them from day to day, but it takes a special combination of personal attributes and environmental factors to actually make it happen. Being young makes it easier to make it happen.

When I hear (usually from colleagues) about a student suicide at GW, I tend to have one immediate feeling (pity) and one immediate thought (was this one of my students?). Then my mind goes to the last minutes of the person; I can’t help imagining the silent misery and desperation surrounding the act itself. Of the student suicides that have happened during my decades at GW, I tend to think most about the undergraduate woman who took the short Metro ride across the Potomac River from her dorm room to soulless Crystal City Virginia (a stark landscape of skyscrapers and parking lots), where she checked into a hotel and killed herself. I’m not sure why her scenario in particular moves me. Maybe her final gesture of removing herself from the social and intellectual buzz of a heady urban scene to the anonymous white noise of Crystal City evokes for me the gesture of suicide itself – the impulse to deafen yourself even to the most seemingly seductive blandishments of existence.

Martin Amis, in his autobiography, Experience, writes that “the writer is the opposite of the suicide, constantly applauding life and, furthermore, creating it, assigning breath and pulse to a ‘nonexistent prodigy.’” (The last phrase is taken from The Eye, by Vladimir Nabokov.) The creative writer may indeed embody suicide’s opposite principle, but this doesn’t stop surprising numbers of literary artists from ending their lives.

We are all, if you like, literary artists every day of our conscious life, telling stories in our heads about ourselves (“God, we simply must dress the character,” Stephen Dedalus broods in Ulysses), keeping journals that plot our progress through the world. Every morning we assign breath and pulse to the self we are as we rise. My teaching life has been about sharing not just formal poetic and fictive and dramatic narratives, but asking students to think about our informal universal demand for stories from our story-tellers – a demand that starts in early childhood. As we get older, we take over the task of narrating our life story and, like Scheherazade, keeping that narrative thread going for the sake of our survival. To teach literature is mainly to deal with successful story-telling: the finished novel, the realized poem. But it is also to remind students that the content of some of that successful literature will be the failure of characters to maintain their fictions. And that the larger story of some of this art will be the personal narrative failure of its flesh-and-blood creator.

Snapshots from Home

lakidsnoop

La Kid, Snoop Dogg,
Kennedy Center,
Washington DC,
December 2013.

So… UD will be interviewing Fran Lebowitz…

… at a George Washington University event next week, and of course she’s been reading and watching a lot of Lebowitz (interviews; this film; and Lebowitz’s agent is sending UD The Fran Lebowitz Reader). She’s been pondering Leibowitz as a person and as a writer, pondering the mix of character and personal history and intellect that makes a person a certain kind of writer, and in particular pondering Lebowitz in connection with UD‘s old friend David Kosofsky, who, like his well-known sister Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, died a few years ago, in his fifties.

While his sister became a famous academic writer, David died without producing the writing he had the ambition to write. This was partly because he lacked his sister’s focus – David tried on academia, tried on freelance travel writing, wrote some unpublished short stories, but nothing really took (a language teacher in Korea for many years, he published two books about English acquisition). Yet thinking about Lebowitz, who calls herself not just a blocked but a “blockaded” writer, UD wonders whether a certain complex attitude, an angle toward the world the two of them share, has something to do with this outcome.

On the simplest level, Lebowitz and Kosofsky are rather steadily depressed, extremely well-read Jewish intellectuals of a socially radical disposition. Yet because they actually seem not to believe in the possibility of even incremental (forget radical) human improvement – because both have the satirist’s amused pity for the incorrigible stupidity of the human race – their radicality is really what’s blocked. The blocked writing is the natural outcome of a wry hopelessness which may – as in the case of Lebowitz and, say, someone like Karl Kraus or Alfred Jarry – produce some hilarious satire which evokes the liberating and clarifying shock we feel when a writer aggressively strips us of all our delusions, but it won’t produce very much, possibly because the pull of the writer’s underlying hopelessness gets more and more powerful, moves more and more toward disappointment, with time and experience.

Think here of what George Orwell, in “Politics vs Literature,” says about Jonathan Swift. There’s much in the passage I’m about to cite that does not correspond to Lebowitz and Kosofsky – neither the point about authoritarianism, nor the point about envy of others who may be happy seems right – but there’s much in this passage that does correspond:

[T]he most essential thing in Swift is his inability to believe that life — ordinary life on the solid earth, and not some rationalized, deodorized version of it — could be made worth living. Of course, no honest person claims that happiness is now a normal condition among adult human beings; but perhaps it could be made normal, and it is upon this question that all serious political controversy really turns. Swift has much in common — more, I believe, than has been noticed — with Tolstoy, another disbeliever in the possibility of happiness. In both men you have the same anarchistic outlook covering an authoritarian cast of mind; in both a similar hostility to Science, the same impatience with opponents, the same inability to see the importance of any question not interesting to themselves; and in both cases a sort of horror of the actual process of life…

The dreary world of the Houyhnhnms was about as good a Utopia as Swift could construct, granting that he neither believed in a ‘next world’ nor could get any pleasure out of certain normal activities. But it is not really set up as something desirable in itself, but as the justification for another attack on humanity. The aim, as usual, is to humiliate Man by reminding him that he is weak and ridiculous, and above all that he stinks; and the ultimate motive, probably, is a kind of envy, the envy of the ghost for the living, of the man who knows he cannot be happy for the others who — so he fears – may be a little happier than himself. The political expression of such an outlook must be either reactionary or nihilistic, because the person who holds it will want to prevent Society from developing in some direction in which his pessimism may be cheated.

… Swift’s world-view is felt to be not altogether false — or it would probably be more accurate to say, not false all the time. Swift is a diseased writer. He remains permanently in a depressed mood which in most people is only intermittent, rather as though someone suffering from jaundice or the after-effects of influenza should have the energy to write books. But we all know that mood, and something in us responds to the expression of it.

… Part of our minds — in any normal person it is the dominant part — believes that man is a noble animal and life is worth living: but there is also a sort of inner self which at least intermittently stands aghast at the horror of existence.

The energy despite the jaundice – yet, if my theory is right, that energy does indeed dissipate, with the satirist increasingly unwilling to face the horror-content she is bound to produce if she does in fact write. “All contemplation of oneself is unpleasant — even the contemplation of your own ideas is fairly nerve‑racking — and that’s what writing is,” says Lebowitz in a Paris Review interview. When your own ideas feature the ignobility and lack of interest of most other human beings, you may have difficulty taking them seriously enough to write about them. In one of the few unkind reviews of Lebowitz’s work I found, a Tablet writer says

[A] tastefully nihilistic pose has been [Lebowitz's] fortune and, perhaps perversely, also her undoing as an artist. “I’m not interested in other people, so I don’t expect them to be interested in me,” she claims. Fair enough (if somewhat specious), except that the single requirement of the art of writing — to say nothing of the art of conversation — is exactly that.

Actually, it’s not that an interest in other people is a requirement of writing; it’s a requirement of deeper, non-satirical writing. Nor is such an interest a requirement of conversation; it is, again, only a requirement of conversation that goes beyond what can be enormously amusing (see Oscar Wilde’s Earnest) badinage and point-scoring. Iris Murdoch puts it this way:

[M]ost great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image. I think this kind of merciful objectivity is virtue…

Lebowitz and Kosofsky’s charisma derives and derived in part, I’m thinking, from their patent, and very cool, uninterest in this sort of thing. Flaneuse and flaneur, they are and were the “idle observer” on the surface of things, the observer who makes out of a public/private experience involving a totally out-there walker’s life in the city and a totally in-there retreatist’s life inside one’s library, a fascinating, but perhaps ultimately pretty demoralizing, spectacle.

It’s been an April Foolsworthy Academic Year at UD’s…

… George Washington University, and the campus newspaper is all over it.

‘”I am afraid, but there are situations in which you have to act, regardless of your own fear,” he told the Russian New Times magazine.’

Andrei Zubov gets fired (no tenure in New Imperial Russia?) for criticizing the motherland’s action in Crimea.

Meanwhile Mr UD (a Pole) is excited about Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s letter to Poland inviting it to join the fun and take whatever part of Ukraine it wants. Mr UD has been rubbing his hands together gleefully. He has taken out maps and put big red lines down the middle of Ukraine. “Here!” he says, and then redraws the line. “No. Here!”

Snapshots from Home: ‘thesda.

Bethesda, Maryland. One of the richest and best educated places on earth. UD‘s stomping grounds.

Born in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University Hospital (her father was one of Manfred Mayer’s immunology grad students there – if you scan this appreciation, you light upon Herbert Rapp, UD‘s father), UD was whisked to ‘thesda at a young age and taught the ways of that hard-charging, hyper-competitive, hyper-accomplished place. ‘Twas here, in Latin class at Walter Johnson High School, that she collided with David Kosofsky, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s brother.

To understand a phenom like nineteen-year-old Daniel Milzman – co-author of two published researched papers by the age of sixteen, sophomore pre-med Georgetown University student, accomplished hockey player; and fashioner, in his dorm room, through his own iPhone-assisted research, of a biological weapons agent - it helps to have a sense in your head of the ‘thesdan surround, the world from which Milzman (who attended not WJ high school, but its neighbor, Walt Whitman, where David’s mother spent a career as an Honors English teacher) emerged. Restless curiosity, precocious accomplishment…

[P]olice found ricin in [Milzman's] room on the sixth floor of McCarthy Hall early Tuesday… Federal court documents indicate that Milzman, 19, showed a resident assistant a bag of what he claimed was ricin late Monday. According to the affidavit, the RA reported the matter to Counseling and Psychiatric Services, who in turn contacted the Georgetown University Police Department. … Court documents say Milzman purchased material to make the substance at Home Depot and the American Plant Company.

American Plant Company! Next door to a well-heeled private school, American Plant is where UD goes when she’s feeling all elegant and let’s try out this one unusual expensive new thing in regard to her garden (otherwise she goes to massive sprawling Behnke’s in zero-prestige Beltsville Maryland). She can sort of see Milzman at this gorgeous shop full of eco-succulents and thick, earthy containers… He’s walking slowly, accompanied by one of the crisply dressed garden experts who wander the place deadheading geraniums and asking if you have any questions. The expert is impressed by this kid’s precision about what he wants… She wonders about a nineteen year old male with any interest in gardens, let alone this very specific interest…

They’re mulching six floors down…

… or they’re about to – sacks of mulch lie scattered about the boxwood and lirope, and two men with little black rakes are evening the ground in preparation for opening the sacks and raking some more.

I’m watching this from my office window on a cloudy but not too cold (first day of spring!) morning in Foggy Bottom. The gardening goes on in front of The President, a bland student residence with a grand name.

Wow. The sun’s up and way out already. The day’s suddenly not cloudy at all but robin egg blue without anything but blue – not a cloud in the sky.

Making my coatless way to the car (a silent teeny Prius with multiple computer screens) earlier this AM, I saw the daffodils bursting out of the lirope beds I stuck them in – and yesterday there was snow on the ground! But the aconites and snowdrops have been out for weeks – I’ve had to shoo the deer away from them.

I’m about to teach Charles Wright – his sad dusty unredeemed verses… But the mood at my office desk is light-hearted — La Kid comes back from Ireland today, the weather’s turning mild…

“Some places are not comfortable with being named after a convicted white-collar felon.”

Rick Cohen, in Nonprofit Quarterly, notes the unfortunate background of the soon-to-be-namesake of George Washington University’s new Milken Institute School of Public Health. It is undeniably embarrassing; and it invites questions about the source of some of the money Michael Milken is donating.

GW was, I think, right to take the money from a man who has spent many years trying to repair his name; but it would also be a good move if GW, in a lengthy alumni magazine article, say, wrote a comprehensive review of Milken’s life and openly discussed his criminal years.

Snapshots from Home.

rufuslakid

La Kid, Rufus Wainwright,
and La Kid’s friend Molly.

Kennedy Center Honors,
December 2013.

(Click on photo
for a bigger view.)

UD is related, by thirty years of friendship with his parents…

… to Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the Academy Award nominated documentary, The Act of Killing. (You know how your friends say My kid makes films. and you nod vaguely and move on to something else? UD isn’t going to do that anymore.)

Les UDs will probably not watch the awards show tonight, even though they’d maybe get glimpses of their friends the Oppenheimers in the audience. Both UDs are too distracted to watch (UD‘s under a deadline: A press approached her about publishing something UD‘s got cooking – The Electronic Burqa: Women, the Internet, and the Public Realm – and she promised a sample chapter by tomorrow morning; Mr UD is riveted to the news out of Ukraine), but UD will follow events online.

The jolting – perhaps ultimately morally awakening – surreality of Josh’s film (in which mass murderers gleefully, meticulously, theatrically, re-enact their killings) was the perfect backdrop for UD‘s discussion, in her Modernism class last week, of Dada and surreality. The blithe amusing infantile conscienceless bestiality on view in Josh’s film has its aesthetic origins, for UD at least, in Alfred Jarry’s surrealistic farce Ubu Roi (1896).

“We are all Ubu,” writes Roger Shattuck, “still blissfully ignorant of our destructiveness and systematically practicing the soul-devouring ‘reversal’ of flushing our conscience down the john. Ubu, unruffled king of tyrants and cuckolds, is more terrifying than tragedy.”

The shock, hilarity, and unsettledness that violent surrealistic art can sometimes provoke does seem to have its political purposes (Josh’s film has apparently provoked a national conversation in Indonesia.)

Ubu Roi was the basis for Jan Lenica’s animated film Ubu et la grande gidouille (1976) and was later adapted into Jane Taylor’s “Ubu and the Truth Commission” (1998), a play critical of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed in response to the atrocities committed during Apartheid. Ubu Roi was also adapted for the film Ubu Król 2003 by Piotr Szulkin, highlighting the grotesque nature of political life in Poland immediately after the fall of communism.

Inspired by the black comedy of corruption within Ubu Roi, the Puerto Rican absurdist narrative “United States of Banana” by Giannina Braschi, dramatizes, with over-the-top grotesque flourishes … the fall of the American Empire and the liberation of Puerto Rico.

Just now, on a dusky blue night…

… I watched two barred owls fly from one bare tree in my backyard to another. They lit for awhile on each limb, scanning the ground, and then lifted their big wings and flew off to the trees across the railroad tracks. I can still hear their call.

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