Too Much Self-Esteem

The Whole Package for Guys Who Believe They’re Special

The worst thing about living in Southern California is that there are too many people—particularly males—who have been told all their lives that they are special. The result is a population that thinks they deserve all the good things in life without having to work for them. One sees on the road all the BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes Benzes, Maseratis, Bentleys, Jags, and other high-priced vehicles that are the trademark for guys with tiny weenies who at the same time are big dicks … and who have to prove it several times each mile.

At the time I was sent to school at the tender age of five, I was not told I was special. My friend András and I were considered as little freaks who attacked our teacher because she refused to understand our Hungarian, which, after all, was the prevalent language of the Buckeye Road neighborhood in Cleveland where we lived. My teacher, Mrs. Idell, retaliated by sending me home with a note pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking. From that point until the fifth grade, when I finally knew enough English to get good grades, I was thought to be something of a retard. In Second Grade, Sister Frances Martin, the Dominican nun who was our teacher at Saint Henry, would come up to me, pull my nears hard, and call me “cabbagehead.”

When I came to Los Angeles in 1966, I encountered a widespread plague of high self-esteem. Everybody had to pretend to be richer, more handsome, and more of a stud than they in actuality were. I think that one result of all this is that many of my fellow students put themselves in debt up to their ears. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are living on the streets in homeless encampments.

It reminds me in so many ways of many Honoré de Balzac novels, such as Lost Illusions, in which a whole society tried to live beyond its means. Some managed to do it; others fell hard by the wayside.

 

Outliers: From Slavery to the Art World

Alabama Artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949) Surrounded by His Works

Bill Traylor was born in Benton, Alabama, where his parents were slaves of a white cotton grower named George Hartwell Traylor. It was only when Traylor was in his seventies that his work began to be noticed. His first show was in 1942, when the artist was in his eighties. By this time, he had only a few years left to him.

Community Building a House

An American primitive, Traylor painted both rural and urban scenes containing people, animals, and plants. Some of his works are on irregularly-shaped backgrounds, as you can see from the top photo.

Black Couple Dancing

Some people get enthusiastic about abstract expressionism. I for one do not. Bill Traylor’s drawings speak volumes nto me. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko do not.

 

Serendipity: “Happiness, Pure and Immaterial”

Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (1893-1993)

One of the most incredible women travelers of the Twentieth Century was Freya Stark, who wrote some thirty books about her solo travels in the Middle East during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I am currently halfway through The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1936) about her trip to a part of Yemen which is currently at war with Saudi Arabia. Yet she managed to travel around by herself with only one problem: she contracted a wicked case of measles when she visited a harem in Masna’a. Before she came down with her illnesses, she reflects on a moment of pure joy:

When the evening came, and the sweet shrill cry of the kites, that fills the daylight, stopped, ’Awiz appeared with three paraffin lanterns, which he dotted about the floor in various places, and, having given me my supper, departed to his home. The compound with its dim walls, its squares of moist earth planted with vegetables and few trees, grew infinite and lovely under the silence of the moon. The gate of the city was closed now; a dim glow showed where the sentries beguiled their watch with a hookah in the guard house; at more or less hourly intervals they struck a gong suspended between poles, and so proclaimed the hour. And when I felt tired, I would withdraw from my verandah, collect and blow out the superfluous lanterns, and retire to my room. None of the doors shut easily, so I did not bother to lock them; I had refused the offer of a guard to sleep at my threshold, the precaution was so obviously unnecessary. As I closed my eyes in this security and silence, I thought of the Arabian coasts stretching on either hand:—three hundred miles to Aden; how many hundred to Muscat in the other direction? the Indian Ocean in front of me, the inland deserts behind: within these titanic barriers I was the only European at that moment. A dim little feeling came curling up through my sleepy senses; I wondered for a second what it might be before I recognized it: it was Happiness, pure and immaterial; independent of affections and emotions, the aetherial essence of happiness, a delight so rare and so impersonal that it seems hardly terrestrial when it comes.

 

What Is Truth?

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Even though the Soviet Menace has long since disappeared, I am still a devotee of spy fiction. These days, it’s harder to find a spy service that is a worthy adversary for the great British agents of MI-5 and MI-6. Oh, Vladimir Putin is still around; and he is a bona fide graduate of the KGB Academy; but the situation has morphed beyond recognition since the old Marxist-Leninist days.

The one constant in the genre is the frangibility of truth. Who is it that decides what actually happened? I have just finished reading Len Deighton’s Spy Line, which ends with a scene on the autobahn in East German territory. There are two KGB men killed; one British agent; the sister-in-law of the book’s hero Bernard Samson; leaving behins Samson and his wife, who had defected to the Soviets and was returning to the West; and one man named Turkettle, who appears to be a CIA asset who has reputedly performed assassinations for the Soviets. Amidst this confusing welter, a British agent must try to make sense of all this so that he can get his “K” (Knighthood). He has to construct a plausible truth while the survivors of the incident have their own reasons for hiding facts.

Here is a short list of spy novels that I think are worthy of your attention:

  • Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands (1903). Spying on the German naval buildup leading to WWI.
  • W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden (1928). Made into a film by Hitchcock called The Secret Agent (1936).
  • Ian Fleming: From Russia With Love (1957). Very fanciful, but great fun.
  • Graham Greene: The Honorary Consul (1973). Set along the border between Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Len Deighton: The “Harry Palmer” and Bernard Samson novels, especially Funeral in Berlin (1964)
  • John Le Carré: The George Smiley novels, particularly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Adapted into two films, of which the 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness was the better.

If any others come to mind, I’ll expand this list in the future.

 

There Is Some Good News

Stadium Sequence from Triumph of the Will (1935)

If you are feeling despondent about politics in America in 2018, I recommend you google YOUTUBE RIEFENSTAHL TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. People make a lot of glib comparisons between Trumpf’s Administration and Nazi Germany. Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the 6th Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1933 will make you see how the present differs from that dismal event eighty-five years ago. The film is one and three quarters of an hour long, but it is mesmerizing in its icy control and will suggest several major differences between then and now.

First of all, Hitler and the Nazis were always on message. There are no 3 am Tweets that contradict one another. The Führer knew what he wanted to say and said it—even when he was lying through his teeth. A major attempt is made during the Congress to heal the split between the Brownshirts (the Stürmabteilung or SA) and the SS. Yet between the Congress and the time this film was released to the German public, the Night of the Long Knives took place, and the Brownshirts were purged, and many of its leaders were executed without benefit of trial. I can only wonder how the German people interpreted all the happy talk about the SA in the film when it was finally released.

It amazed me that so many of Hitler’s lieutenants were with him to the bitter end. It is true that Vice Führer Rudolf Hess defected to England, and many of the SA Leaders were no more; but there were Gõring, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Von Schirach, and many others who made an appearance in the film stayed with Hitler through thick and thin. Compare that with the revolving door in Trumpf’s White House. First there is the inevitable publicity photo of our President smiling and pointing at his new hire as if to say, “See, I bring you the very best.” Then a few months later, “he was never any good anyway.”

Then, too, America is very different. Instead of all those Nazi salutes and Sieg Heils, there would be thousands of upraised middle fingers and hurled garbage. The only way Trumpf can raise a great multitude is in his dreams (witness the size of the inauguration crowd in January 2017).

Adolf Hitler with Film Director Leni Riefenstahl

Despite the fact that women do not play a major part in the 6th Nazi Party Congress, the film of the Congress was directed by a woman who was probably one of the greatest of all women film directors. Whether or not she was a loyal Nazi, she knew how to make a great film. Her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad was perhaps the greatest sports film ever made. Its hero turned out to be a non-Aryan American, the great black athlete Jesse Owens.

Riefenstahl got her start as an actress in a strange German film genre of the 1920s: brooding, mystical mountain films such as The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Piz Palü.

 

The Kid from Cleveland

Of Course, It Helps If You Have Harlan’s Imagination

No, not me, but a much more talented writer. Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) was born in Cleveland and raised there and in nearby Painesville, Ohio. It is a pity that Ellison is almost as well known for his legendary abrasiveness as for his speculative fiction, which ranks with the best ever written. As he himself wrote in Danse Macabre:

My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket.. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrater or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely.

On the plus side, I think that he was not only a prophet, but a kind of self-conscious priest of the Brotherhood of the Imagination. The auuthor of literally thousands of stories, mostly speculative fiction (he preferred that to the term “science fiction”), Ellison knew how much it cost to keep churning out stories that succeeded in appealing to the reader’s imagination. Speaking of his famous script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek TV series, he wrote:

Understand that WRITTEN BY precedes the name of the man who sat long hours alone and concerned, to create a dream for an actor of Leonard Nimoy’s stature to work with. And remember the names of the writers who have done their work well. Honor them. And when the writers have been bad, then condemn them. For a man who mutilates his craft is less than dirt. He is a traitor to all the holy chores Man has ever been entrusted with….

I Am Currently Reading the Revised and Expanded Edition of This Collection

Below is a partial list of the Harlan Ellison collections which I have read and admired:

  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1967)
  • The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969)
  • Approaching Oblivion (1974)
  • Deathbird Stories (1975)
  • Over the Edge: Stories and Essays (1996). A substantially revised version of the 1970 Over the Edge whose cover is illustrated above

This is only a small fraction of what the man has written. I plan to continue my exploration of his work.

 

The Slippers of Abu Kasem

A Great Tale About a Miser During the Abbasid Caliphate

To begin with, Abu Kasem was a notorious miser, and his slippers were a disgrace. At the same time, these slippers came back to haunt him. Just when he made a particularly astute business deal, buying a huge consignment of little crystal bottles as well as a large amount of attar of roses with which to fill them. It was time to do something for himself, so he decided to show up at the public baths. In Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, the following paragraph appears:

In the anteroom, where the clothes and shoes are left, he met an acquaintance, who took him aside and delivered him a lecture on the state of his slippers. He had just set these down, and everyone could see how impossible they were. His friend spoke with great concern about making himself the laughingstock of the town; such a clever businessman should be able to afford a pair of decent slippers.

When he returned from his bath, Abu Kasem could not find his disgraceful slippers. Instead he found a new pair that looked quite classy. They were, because they belonged to the Cadi of Baghdad, who had arrived at the baths a few minutes after Abu Kasem. Thinking they were a gift from his friend who read him the riot act over his old slippers, he appropriated them for himself. When the Cadi returned for his slippers, he found only Abu Kasem’s old, disgraceful pair.

Naturally, everyone knew who those belonged to. Abu Kasem was sent for and was found with the incriminating property on his feet. He was imprisoned and heavily fined, but he was given his old slippers back.

Here begins a series of attempts by Abu Kasem to throw out the old slippers, but they always kept coming back. And at each step of the way, Abu Kasem wound up paying heavily for damages of various kinds. At the last of these episodes, Zimmer writes:

Before he tottered home from the court, a broken man, he raised the unlucky slippers solemnly aloft, and cried with an earnestness that all but reduced the judges to hysterics: “My lord, these slippers are the fateful cause of all my sufferings. These cursed things have reduced me to beggary. Deign to command that I shall never again be held responsible for the evils they will most certainly continue to bring upon my head.” And the Oriental narrator closes with the following moral: The Cadi could not reject the plea, and Abu Kasem had learned, at enormous cost, the evil that can come of not changing one’s slippers often enough.