America First?

Dragging Our Flag Down Into the Mire

Sometimes, I think the United States was destroyed by our victory in the Second World War. It seemed that we found ourselves alone at the top of the heap even as we were surrounded by countries in ruins. That’s when the hubris set in. We were free to make mistakes, lots of mistakes, while trumpeting our prowess.

In an article for The New York Review of Books for November 19, 2020, Pankaj Mishra wrote:

In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006), Jonathan Lear writes of the intellectual trauma of the Crow Indians. Forced to move in the mid-nineteenth century from a nomadic to a settled existence, they catastrophically lost not only their immemorial world but also “the conceptual resources” to understand their past and present. The problem for a Crow Indian, Lear writes, wasn’t just that “my way of life has come to an end.” It was that “I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world…. I have no idea what is going on.”

It is no exaggeration to say that many in the Anglo-American intelligentsia today resemble the Crow Indians, after being successively blindsided by far-right insurgencies, an uncontainable pandemic, and political revolts by disenfranchised minorities. For nearly three decades after the the end of the cold war, mainstream politicians, journalists, and business people in Britain and the US repeatedly broadcast their conviction that the world was being knit together peaceably by their guidelines for capitalism, democracy, and technology. The United States itself appeared to have entered, with Barack Obama’s election, a “post-racial age,” and Americans seemed set, as President Obama wrote in Wired a month for Donald Trump’s election, to “race for new frontiers” and ”inspire the world.”

Well, that didn’t happen. We had Trump for four years, and suddenly it appeared that we were headed for the dissolution of everything we held dear, while dumbasses from Red States crawled out of their caves and began to shake the foundations of our democracy.

It’s not over yet by a long shot. The one sentence I remember from my high school civics textbook is, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” So we had best wake up.

Orphans

There are several things I could write about today. For instance, I could celebrate my 40th annual boycott of the Academy Awards Show. Or I could tell you what V. S. Naipaul thought about politics and politicians—well, maybe tomorrow on that one. I think instead I will talk about the Automobile Driving Museum’s Orphan Car Show held yesterday.

By “orphan” was meant all discontinued makes and models. There was a Hudson, a LA Fire Department Hummer, several American Motors and Nash products, several Austin-Healeys, even a weird Fiat that competed with golf carts. And the place was crowded with affable car collectors eager to talk about their prize possessions.

Poster for Yesterday’s “Cruise-In” Car Show

Martine always enjoys the Automobile Driving Museum because of its emphasis on classic American cars and because of its nearness to where we live. On May 1, the museum displays inside will re-open, and Martine will once again be able to sit inside a classic Corvette and dream about the old days when Detroit made some great cars.

The Front End of a Classic Hudson

2,684

This is not how I have written some 2,684 blog postings on WordPress. This picture is wrong for the following reasons:

  • I don’t wear nail polish.
  • I hate coffee. Even the smell of it sickens me.
  • I use a desktop, not a notebook computer.
  • Flowers? Not likely.

The only things that are true to life in this picture is a container for pens and pencils (none of which I use) and the folded eyeglasses. I have two pairs of glasses: one for long distance and the other for reading. It just so happens that my computer screen is midway between the two, so I don’t wear glasses unless I have to enter something from a book.

Next to my monitor on my desk are a Fujitsu Scanner and a Lexmark MC3224 color laser printer. Also various books I have recently reviewed on Goodreads.Com, keys, an MP3 player, various cords for transferring pictures from my digital camera (which is also on my desk), my cellphone, a box of AA alkaline batteries, tons of handwritten notes, and a pile of bills to be paid.

This Is More Like It

Anyhow, this is more in the spirit of the way I write, except I don’t smoke and I use a computer.

How can you become a prolific writer with incurable verborrhea, like me? All I can say is just write. Pick a time of day, have your say, and be religious about it. Every evening at 9 pm, I begin by writing a book review for Goodreads (where I have over 1,700 book reviews), and then thinking of what to post, beginning with an appropriate (or, in this case, inappropriate) picture to lead off with. And prepositions to end a sentence with.

Over the years, it’s become a bit of a compulsion. And that’s the way it has to be if you want to post 2,684 times.

Happy Birthday, Bill!

The Martin Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare for the First Folio

Today is the 457th birthday of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. In my lifetime so far, I have read all the plays attributed to Shakespeare and about half of the poems. Many of the plays I have read multiple times, the leader being Hamlet. Currently, I am re-reading The Winter’s Tale, and, in the months to come, I hope to revisit several other of my favorite comedies, such as Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night.

I know it would be better to see the plays performed. But even if Covid-19 were still not on the rampage, it’s not easy to see the Bard in performance. So I must reconcile myself to reading the plays.

All in all, he wrote some forty plays, most alone, but some in partnership with other playwrights. No, I do not think that Francis Bacon wrote his plays, nor the Earl of Southampton, nor Wile E. Coyote. I suppose I could live my life in an alternate universe like Donald Trump’s supporters, but I much prefer the real world. Consequently, I am not interested in doubting his authorship. After all, we probably know more about the Bard than we know about any of his contemporaries.

If you like Shakespeare as much as I do, I have a film to recommend: Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) is about a group of young Parisians putting on a performance of Pericles, Prince of Tyre—not one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and one most likely not 100% written by him, but definitely fun for all Bardaholics.

A World Class Art Museum

The Cleveland Museum of Art

One would think that I would praise the Los Angeles Museum of Art to the skies. I don’t. (Too much non-representational modern garbage.) Instead, I think back to the Cleveland Museum of Art as reflected in the lovely lagoon which leads to the main entrance. It was surrounded by two universities which have since joined into one: Case Western Reserve University used to be the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.

As a high school student, I used to take the bus down to University Circle and take an art appreciation class taught by the museum staff. After each class, I would stroll around the galleries, especially the one dedicated to the French Impressionists. There was a particularly beautiful Van Gogh there. And, as a kid, I loved the medieval armor gallery, the like of which I have never seen in any other art museum.

The Armor Court at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There wasn’t a whole lot of abstract expressionism around, though I suspect there is more now. The closest I came to liking modern art was a moody painting by the American Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). It was called “Death on a Pale Horse.” I am happy to hear the painting is still there.

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Each time I went to the museum, I would have lunch at a soda fountain by East 105th Street, always ordering a lime rickey, which was pretty much like a lemonade except it was made with lime. Back then, I thought of lime as an exotic fruit instead of an accompaniment to my tequila.

Places like the Museum meant a great deal to me. It was a way I could get away from home on a Saturday and enjoy myself and learn something at the same time.

Places: South Iceland 2001 and 2013

Looking South from the Island of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

These are my oldest image files. They were converted from my Kodachrome slides from a trip I took to Iceland in 2001. Before I went to Iceland, there were parts of Europe that fascinated me. After Iceland, I was fascinated only by Iceland. Was it that I have an inborn need for wastelands like Patagonia or the Southwestern Deserts of the United States or the Peruvian Altiplano? I think so.

With the above photo, I was trying to see if I could find Surtsey, the island that was created by a recent volcanic upheaval beneath the sea. (The island still exists, but it is gradually getting smaller.)

The Ice in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Near Skaftafell

One of the most incredible sights in South Iceland is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visible from the Ring Road on the way to Höfn in Hornstrandir. On one side of the road are these incredible chunks broken off from the giant glacier Vatnajökull; on the other, is a black sand beach dotted with tiny chunks of transparent ice like diamonds in a black satin setting.

The lagoon and beach are so spectacular that it is almost impossible to just pass on by. Even the bus to and from Höfn stops for a half hour or so. It’s not long enough for a boat ride on the lagoon—but it makes you want to come back, as I did in 2013.

Ice like Diamonds on a Black Sand Beach (Breiðamerkursandur) 2013

Why I Want To Return

My two visits to Iceland have merely whetted my appetite. I have read all the major Medieval Icelandic sagas, most of the novels of Iceland’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Halldor Laxness), and the superb books by Jesse L. Byock on Medieval Iceland. Plus there are parts of Iceland I have not seen, such as the Eastfjords, the stretch between Bru and Akureyri, Siglufjörður, and the Sprengisandur route through the middle of the island.

Literature from the Hutongs of Beijing

A Colorful Hutong in the City of Beijing

In Northern Chinese cities, such as Beijing, hutongs are usually narrow alleys formed by adjoining sineyuan, or traditional courtyard residences, squeezed together. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading contemporary Chinese literature, which gives me an altogether different view of the Chinese people than I get from contemplating the actions of the Xi Jinping government.

I thought I would list here a few of the best Chinese novels of the latter half of the 20th Century:

  • Geo Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, probably the best Chinese novel I have read, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize
  • Mo Yan’s Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of novellas
  • Ma Jian’s Red Dust, a novel that is also a fascinating travel guide as the hero escapes Beijing to discover his country
  • Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, a delightful comic novella
  • Su Tong’s Rice, the most serious book of the bunch with its villainous main character

After reading these books, I have a strong feeling for the essential humanity of the Chinese people. I would have no trouble interacting with them—except for the simple matter of the language barrier.

You Can’t Stop the Change

Walter Mosley, Author of the Easy Rawlins Mysteries

Yesterday afternoon, I “attended” the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books symposium entitled California Dreamin’: Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Actually, the event was virtual, so I tuned in with my computer for what turned out to be an excellent discussion. The moderator was USC Professor David L. Ulin, and the guest speakers were novelist Walter Mosley and political analyst Ron Brownstein.

One of the most interesting points made was about political mobilization against cultural change. Irrespective what the hippies tried to do in the 1960s, enough voters were freaked out to elect Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. As Mosley said at one point, the voters’ response was along the lines of “T don’t want to hear the truth; I want to hear what makes me feel good.” However, cultural change eventually wins out. For example, today’s youth do not tend to oppose homosexual marriage or transgender identification.

The Atlantic Editor Ron Brownstein

This was an interesting conclusion to someone like me, who is amazed that a shrinking demographic like that of the Republican Party can still win elections. For now, anyhow.

After the one-hour discussion ended, I immediately ordered the featured books by Mosley and Brownstein shown in the above photographs.

I arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1967. One would have had to be deaf and blind to recognize the ferment that was taking place—only to be replaced by the 1970s and the onrush of a paranoid political conservatism.

In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

A Prickly Individual

Trinidad-Born Author V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018)

What happens when one of your favorite authors forms a friendship with another of your favorite authors and then writes a book about that friendship? That’s the case when Paul Theroux came out in 1998 with Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Both authors wrote not only novels but travel books. IMHO, Naipaul was the better novelist (by a long shot); but Paul Theroux’s travel books are far better—to the extent that they have played a major role in the way I lived my life over the last forty years.

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad of a Hindu Indian family. He parlayed his colonial background into a brilliant series of novels which eventually gained for him a knighthood (in 1990) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 2001). He encountered Paul Theroux in Uganda, where both were living for a while. They became fast friends even before Theroux published his first novel.

That friendship became an instrumental part of Theroux’s life. Even when separated by thousands of miles, they wrote to each other frequently. He was even sexually attracted to Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia, who died in 1996.

Patricia and Vidia Naipaul

Throughout the long friendship, Vidia Naipaul turned out to be a rather prickly individual. Some of it was due to his Brahmin fastidiousness:

“I can’t sleep in that bed,” he said. “It’s tainted. Why did he do it? The foolish, ignorant man!”

“What happened?” I asked.

“One of the workmen in Vidia’s bedroom was explaining something,” Pat began.

His face twisted in nausea, Vidia said, “And he sat on my bed…. He put his bottom on my bed.”

What would have bothered me more than it seemed to bother Theroux was that Naipaul was notorious about not picking up the check when they went out for dinner. And this was at a time when Paul was at the beginning of his career and constantly short of funds.

When Patricia died, the friendship suddenly came apart. Shortly after the funeral, Vidia married an Indian woman named Nadira, whom he had met previously in Africa. Quite suddenly, all of Paul’s attempts to contact Vidia were intercepted by Nadira, who was highly critical of the American writer.

The coffin nail was driven into the friendship when Paul and his son were taking a walk in London and suddenly encountered Vidia, who did not acknowledge him. When Paul addressed him, Vidia finally recognized him. When asked if he had received a recent fax from Paul, Naipaul was reluctant to discuss the matter further. When Paul asked what was to be done, Naipaul answered, “Take it on the chin and move on.”

Theroux was shocked:

He knew. It was over. It never occurred to me to chase him. There would be no more. And I understood the shock of something’s being over, like being slapped—hurt as the blood whipped through my body. “Like being hit by a two-by-four,” my friend had said when Vidia insulted her in Oregon.

This exchange takes place on the last page of the book. Theroux could have done a job of character assassination on his old friend, but he chose not to. After all those years, the friendship had meant a great deal to him, even if it ended badly.

I, too, have had prickly friends. Some I walked away from. Some I took up with again after a number of years had transpired. Would I have done differently than what I wound up doing in the end? Probably not.

In the end, I really liked Theroux’s book, which demonstrated that—for a time—his friendship with Vidia had great value in his life.