So a little anecdote, a wee life narrative, from Philip Levine, a Jewish guy who spent some life-endangered time in a shared hospital room entered into one early evening by a cheer-spreading (but not really) priest. Those of us who know Matthew Arnold’s famous Dover Beach may read Levine’s first lines as a kind of modern affectless highly concentrated summary of that angsty Victorian verse. Both poets consider the seeming pointlessness of life, nicely visually captured by the eternal in and out of ocean waves expiring on the shore:
[T]he grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin…
Every day a little death; then, for no particular reason, even maybe stupidly, a gulp of air and another plunge back to the brine, only to dissolve yet again. One More New Botched Beginning. Levine even takes the word shingles from Arnold, who laments
the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.
Naked because these fragile piles of sea stones have been abandoned again and again on the shore by the always-retreating, always-betraying waves of “new” existence. In Levine, you hate the sea as it “floods the shingle,” dousing it with possibility, and then – (Lucy: football; Sisphyus: rock; etc. etc. etc. ) – stranding it. And then the ultimate insult: Not enough that life is drear; there’s the insult of life – even crappy life – “still going” when “your life is over.”
So with that general statement done, Levine proceeds to his story. The visiting priest asks Levine (this seems an autobiographical poem) if he knows what Arnold’s fellow Victorian, the great Catholic poet John Henry Cardinal Newman said about the sea. The poem never says exactly what that was, but take it that the priest might have had this in mind:
[My conversion] was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.
But Newman spoke too soon; he experienced very serious depressions in his later years, and wrote one of the most-cited poems about that condition. And here’s a sample of his late-in-life prose.
I have so depressing a feeling that I have done nothing through my long life, and especially that now I am doing nothing at all. … What am I? my time is out. I am passé. I may have done something in my day—but I can do nothing now. It is the turn of others. … It is enough for me to prepare for death, for, as it would appear, nothing else awaits me—there is nothing else to do.
The merry priest tells Levine to change his life – consider conversion, one imagines, in order to be happier, and situated in a meaningful deathless world – but Levine replies that he likes his life, bitter existential betrayal and all. The priest then complains that holidays like New Year’s Eve are “stressful” for priests – presumably because everyone’s miserably reflecting on their lives the way Levine (who has the double whammy of illness and end of year to get him going) is. So the priest himself ain’t so jolly, having to gad about from drear hospital room to drear hospital room attempting to spread cheer. In fact he needs a break and is off to the biblically and californically rich “Carmel” to decompress.
The priest is now silent; together he and Levine watch the night “spread from the corners of the room.” They are being engulfed by metaphysical darkness… The priest can only repeat himself: The poet should change his life. “I asked had he been reading Rilke,” Levine sardonically responds. Rilke’s famous sonnet, Archaic Torso of Apollo, ends with that imperative: You must change your life. But it seems unlikely that the priest would be quoting Rilke’s erotic, non-religious, hyper-aesthetic poem; it seems likely that Levine is having a little fun with the little priest.
Not that we’ve ever left it, but the poem ends with a big thudding return to godless modernity, with the retired landscaper in the next bed (he’s given up trying to alter the earth), who hails from a town with a random unartful name, groaning with emptiness (“blank wall”) and defeat. And who does the poet feel bad for? The priest, with his absurd “my sons” designation (he’s much younger, one presumes, than either of these old sick men) and his disappointment that these two sinners seem to be failing big time at eternal life. Not only are they dying without grace (“gracelessly”); they are, more problematically, robbing the priest of his much-needed certainty of their salvation – hence his need to retreat to Carmel and deal with his stress.
Darkest of all is the priest’s own peculiar metaphysical fate, meted out in the last two lines: Salvific eternity itself may present to our sublunary minds as another hideous Sisyphean tableau, the chilling endlessness of … endlessness.
Although UD grew up right down the Amtrak corridor from New York City, she seldom traveled there; even as an adult, she’s visited shockingly few times. UD has spent more time in Ubud, Bali, than in NYC. Yet she notices that she has, over the years, developed a curious sort of home wisdom about one of the most prominent subcultures there.
These rough and ready truths of hers are not, of course, based on nothing; like many literate people, UD has been reading about that city and its inhabitants all her life; and from what she has gleaned, she has derived some modestly explanatory takes on some of its more notorious denizens.
Most broadly, she finds that firmly situating Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Cohen, Charles Kushner, Marc Kasowitz, and many other Trumpish madmen — but especially Donald Trump himself — in New York City helps us understand them. It’s helpful to see them as emerging out of a particular ecosystem in which their behavior is perfectly normal.
On a lower yet still fascinating level, firmly situating two recent high-profile identity-fakers (Jessica Krug and Hilaria Baldwin) in NYC also helps us understand them.
Let me start with the lunatic White House.
New York City, let us say, rears, attracts, and encourages hyperdriven hypercompetitive crazies who just go all the way. Their nature is to charge into everything – money deals, marriages, parenthood, politics – with supermanic frenzy and without a thought – without one thought, I tell you – for the morrow. Bankruptcy? Divorce? Jail? Fuck it. Trump ran headlong into a ridiculous quest for the presidency and look what happened! NYC people simply keep breaking through – that’s the thing. They don’t think of life as a series of steps which will if you’re not careful eventuate in bad outcomes which will pain you and those you love and condemn you to hell or whatever — they don’t think like normal people. The Big Mo on steroids – that’s their thing. Competitive capitalism unbound. Competitive everything unbound. No shame, no fear, no brakes.
Did you see either of the films based on Madoff? In both films, if I recall correctly, someone at some point looks at him and says something like Why did you do it and why didn’t you stop? The why did you do it part has no NYC resonance; the not stopping part – not stopping until THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY TANKED AND HE COULD NO LONGER PAY OUT REDEMPTIONS – is echt Trumpy NYC. If you’re a Trumpy New Yorker, only some form of global collapse will stop you. Recall that up to the moment of his arrest Madoff was a singularly respected, highly placed, and well-connected New Yorker. A pious New Yorker – Yeshiva University’s treasurer!
Hell, Trump’s the president. And in case you haven’t noticed, he’s not planning to stop being president. Susan Glasser writes:
… Trump has remained … obnoxiously unrepentant. … He does not want to let go, to cede the spotlight, to renounce his outsized claim on our collective consciousness….
And you know that at no point in the real Madoff story did anyone ask him why he didn’t stop – that line was edited in for hayseeds outside NYC like UD, cuz otherwise the film would make no sense in any moral world she and her like can imagine. No one around Madoff ever stopped doing anything lucrative or personally advantageous, no matter how sordid, and Madoff would never have stopped either.
Once Trumps and Madoffs are truly a spent force, once they decide it’s safe to slow down and decamp with their winnings (even spitfires get old and lose their fire), they make a purely lateral cultural move – to their house in Florida.
People look at Donald Trump as a singular, ab nihilo dude; they can’t fathom his past behavior and they certainly can’t fathom his present. But he and Giuliani are behaving exactly the way people pickled in their brine always behave: Advance, Advance, Advance and the world can fuck itself.
Central to NYC-style heedless advancement is lying. You misrepresent yourself; you misrepresent your financial worth; you misrepresent the value of anything you have to offer. And of course you lie about other people; you make up obviously jackshit stories about Obama being born in Kenya and George Soros controlling Congress and Joe Biden stealing a presidential election. Advance, advance, advance, lie, lie, lie. In your NYC world everyone’s obscenely on the make and everyone lies. Lie it forward. No lie is too edgy, absurd, out there, shameless. Bigger the better. Keep going. Seems to work fine in DC too.
Look at Harold Brodkey’s take on this slice of NYC culture. His perspective is that of an artist, not a crazed capitalist, but he evokes the same Trumpian world, one part mania, one part lying:
I was always crazy about New York, dependent on it, scared of it – well, it is dangerous – but beyond that there was the pressure of being young and of not yet having done work you really liked, trademark work, breakthrough work. The trouble with the city’s invitation was that you were aware you might not be able to manage: you might drown, you might fall off the train, whatever metaphor you preferred, before you did anything interesting. You would have wasted your life. One worked hard or not at all, and tried to withstand the constant demolishing judgement. One watched people scavenge for phrases in other people’s talk – that hunt for ideas which is, sometimes, like picking up dead birds. One witnessed the reverse of glamour – that everyone is jealous.
It is not a joke, the great clang of New York. It is the sound of brassy people at the party, at all the parties, pimping and doing favors and threatening and making gassy public statements and being modest and blackmailing and having dinner and going on later. (Renata Adler used to say you could get anyone to be disliked in New York merely by praising that person to someone nervous and competitive.) Literary talk in New York often announced itself as the best talk in America. People would say, “Harold, you are hearing the best in America tonight.” It would be a cut-throat monologue, disposable wit in passing, practiced with a certain carelessness in regard to honesty. But then truth was not the issue, as it almost never is in New York.
New York City is also where we find the highest-profile imposters – people who, like fictive Manhattanite Jay Gatsby, lie all the way down to their corpuscles. Jessica Krug: White, Jewish, affluent; Gatsbyized black, hispanic, poor. Hilaria Baldwin: Offspring of people whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower; Gatsbyized a Spaniard with a strong accent and a shaky grasp of the English language.
Plenty of distinctions to be made amid all of this, I know. Hilaria (real name Hillary) ain’t much of a story. One… theatricalizes, mythologizes, oneself to be more interesting in the big city crowd. To stand out in hypercompetitive NYC. Baldwin is a strange woman, given to exhibitionism and self-praise, but who cares? Kim Kardashian for the west coast, and, for the sophisticated east, NYU-educated Hilaria Baldwin (though Kim comes by her exotic Armenianness honestly).
Krug’s far more insidious NYC tale carries ugly social implications having to do with the ideological corruption of universities and other institutions.
But both women share with the mad Trumpian lads that NYC thing: fake it til you fake it. Fake it more. Nothing exceeds like excess.
I can’t believe Doctorate Discourse has lasted a week. Here’s the deal: WSJ op ed & subsequent attacks are motivated by hatred of Joe Biden, with Jill Biden being used as a surrogate target. They should be dismissed as nasty & sexist, without arguments dignified as serious.
Jeet Heer’s tweet goes to why my Joseph Epstein commentary began with his unabashed praise of Sarah Palin [scroll down] during that election cycle. A hyper-scrupulous aesthete/critic who above all admires the writing ofHenry James, Epstein claimed to find Sarah Palin more than intellectually and morally astute enough to assume the presidency.
Heet is correct that Epstein is best seen as a political hack, doing what hacks do — in his praise of Palin, a woman who embodies everything for which he actually has contempt, and in his attack on Jill Biden.
… that for decades every December UD has grabbed a Quiet Car at Union Station and taken the long scenic ride to Boston for a Polish Christmas. This year she’s home in ‘thesda with a small celebratory crew; and as is typical of ol’ UD, she’s happy with this, as she was happy with Boston. There’s an interest in ordering a small same day delivery treeish plant that sits on the dining table surrounded by gifts. The topiary bulls grazing outside in pachysandra (they honor Munro Leaf — author of Ferdinand — the last owner of our house) sport silver lights. The clear night skies have been blasting out, again and again, with meteor showers and conjunctions; yesterday’s sunny morning featured multiple contrails in formation. She prefers all of this to Boston’s blizzards.
A ce moment la (9:30 AM Dec. 24), nature has boiled up a wet and moody brew, and UD is happy with this. Why not. You want something expressive with your Christmas Eve dinner, and in a few hours smoky logs will heighten the gloom … Of course UD – knowing the forecast – should have gathered logs yesterday and kept them under cover blah blah blah, but UD is way non-Girl Scout. She will do her best with her Duraflame firestarter and other random kindling.
In two days Les UDs drive to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware – the summer White House – for their annual Atlantic New Year. As ever, blogging will continue.
Thank God, for the crime-ridden Esformes family (Esformes’ crooked father established the Esformes health care fraud business) also presents itself as way way way godly.
Not that certain branches of Orthodox Judaism (the religion in this case) need any more bad publicity, what with their anti-vax, anti-mask, pro-large-gathering, pro-welfare-fraud thing; but the newly-sprung Esformes will significantly add to the enlightened, law-abiding profile of this group.
This sentence, in an article about a speech Don Jr gave to a Trumpian youth group, is itself problematic. It fails to clarify that Don Jr did notintend to be ironic; the irony derives from the weirdness of a speaker who is himself semi-literate attacking another speaker for being semi-literate.
As to what Trump’s lad could have meant by “conform a sentence” — Let Scathing Online Schoolmarm start with this: Poetry is always an option. Poetry can always be deployed politically if people would like to do that, if people think it might be effective. Look at the way Anthony Hecht used not “conform,” but “inform” in this excerpt from a poem about his wife’s miscarriage:
[C]ould it be That Jewish diligence and Irish jest The consent of flesh and a midwinter storm Had reconciled, Was yet too bold a mixture to inform A simple child?
If Hecht can twist that word cleverly, can play with connotation and pun (why were we unable to form within her a child; to in-form; to transmit our genetic information…), Don Jr can certainly poeticize “conform” … although SOS is having trouble detecting the connotation/pun/whatever that makes the phrase “conform a sentence” poetically suggestive…
The lad simply means “form,” doesn’t he? What has led him astray is too strong a love for the art of thecon.