Archive for May, 2009

Tourist traps of the mind

When not flying around the world incessantly in private jets hectoring people to use less fossil fuels, Al Gore and his ilk may see themselves as trying to preserve the “pristine” places of the world, but even the most audaciously tall mountain or reprehensibly tick-filled forest is fenced in–by expectations, ideology and idées reçues. They are, in short, big clichés. Me, I dream not of saving points in space but moments in time that haven’t yet been cut and plowed and mowed over, but which my imminent employment severly endangers with regimentation. Like the pre-dawn, that dark Scandinavia-like continent where the wind blows and the sun refuses to shine. Or the period before a summer afternoon thunderstorm, when color shines from the plants particularly luridly, as if they were going to explode from within before getting swept away from without. These moments come and go so quickly, whereas the seeing eye unimaginatively remains, that I think perhaps the mind, like most other things that are able to last a long time, is the most insensitive rather than the most sensitive part of its environment, like the skull that endures after the eyes and nose and tongue and brain have vanished. Maybe these little moments of the day can only survive there, in the memory by transforming into a harder, lifeless form, like petrified wood, in which mineral deposits fill up the cell walls, replacing the meat of the tree with stone.

too dumb for New York, too ugly for L.A.

Although recently talk of “accountability” and “change” has engorged the sails of political blather in Washington like a giant erection, the plan to shut down Guantánamo while simply spreading the detainees around to different prisons around the world, as if Guantánamo’s particular genius loci had any intrinsic importance, puts me in mind of those McDonald’s McCafé commercials where coffee makes people feel better about their menial and/or degrading tasks. I have visions of CIA agents electrocuting the nads of some Iraqi car thief to gain information about the movements of the Taliban in western Pakistan–“torture.” Then, the same scene, but now with the agents holding mochas with whipped cream–“torturé!”

The reform impulse isn’t necessarily completely insincere; I doubt even the CIA agents imagined that their training would consist of a kind of bizarro reverse medical school. But the fact that the government apparently doesn’t plan on prosecuting anyone important enough to actually give a real order reminds us that the wheels of justice conform to the same rules that 18-wheelers do at the interstate weigh stations: how much you pay depends on how much weight you have to throw around. Lord knows we’ve seen that monogamy, the amusing idea that the blind wildfire of love should be directed with the precision, stability and exclusivity of property rights, is about the only principle in the name of which they are willing to call the headest of honchos to account. I suspect this is largely because, with the exception perhaps of a few of D.C.’s costliest and most decorated hookers, this kind of scandal only implicates the individual target, rather than the entire political class. The relative infrequency of other kinds of scandal is probably because the warring factions are only once in a while able to unearth shady dealings of their rivals that don’t involve their own side as well.

The bridge to nowhere

Yesterday I went to my brother’s graduation ceremony at UPenn. I recognized the stadium from that movie Unbreakable, and M. Night Shayamalan was a fitting patron saint for those three hours of action-packed rhetoric. Bridges were built, paths were blazed, the walls of Plato’s cave were flickered upon, marathons were planned, then abandoned, and above all, differences were made (or at least promised). Since a professor of classics was presiding over the second half, I was hoping for some application of the principles of Demosthenian oratory, or at least the recycling of a bit of rancorous invective against the Macedonians, but it was not to be.

I guess it doesn’t matter, the auditory element can’t be preserved in picture form, and most parents were there to create a photographic record of the specialness of their children by watching them dress up in identical formless robes and collect in a swarm of 10,000 to sit in rows and be harangued mass rally-style. I admire the principle of making the world’s most highly educated put on silly hats and get-up before they can receive their diplomas, but I find it interesting that girls go out and buy the most luxurious, colorful dresses, just to bury them under a big black burqa. They should just buy the ones whose two inches of hem will look the best peeking out from underneath some billowing pancho- or mumu-like contraption.

I’ve decided graduation ceremonies are a lot like funerals: people dress in black, drink slightly too much and listen to someone behind a pulpit tell lies about the departed or soon-to-be departed. Given the dogmas and clichés nesting them in our culture, every funeral should be happy and every graduation sad, but of course the opposite is generally the case. I guess if the dogmas came naturally to be believed, they wouldn’t need to be constantly repeated.

A finger blowing in the wind

I see ads all over the city bragging about how McDonald’s uses grade A eggs. Let’s hope they’re not using the Harvard grading scale. Most people admit to not understanding economics, but it would take a psychic not to see the direction things are headed now. Religion and comedy are the tragically separated Siamese twins that could not survive apart, having one eye apiece and sharing all their vital organs. The 10 Commandments must have been thought up by someone who didn’t know gossip. Don’t look too much at faces looking back at you, they give you a distorted image of yourself. Get too big and powerful and you split into factions–even within a single person’s mind. The body is a concentration of destiny. I have the same relation to geometry that a drunk has to the lines of a street. The higher divinities shouldn’t need to actually exist to work their wills.

My name is there not for others to recognize me by but to help me recognize myself. Because as Joseph Brodsky hinted, the mind is totalitarian: whichever of the vying factions wins out in any particular internal debate insists on monopolizing not just the acquiescence but the volition of the entire self, and often manages to dupe the outside world as to the unanimity of the whole through that reverend organ of propaganda, the human voice. Or maybe not; I sometimes think writing aphoristically is like pressing coffee and only keeping the grinds. I’ve lost my taste for waking up in the dusty barrio of a hangover. At best, it flattens out, at the end of the day, into a mopey ocean climate.