Twitter epiphany: Greg Tepper, the managing editor for FoxSportsSW out of Dallas, tweets: "This is a really, really good read." He means my Aeon piece, "Fuck Work," now being promoted by @Longreads. Wait'll he gets to The Baffler! The Zeitgeist, it are a changin' . . .
Here's my bleary-eyed take on "Flaked," the Netflix series that pits the local brotherhood of AA against the global, gentrifying forces of neo-whatever. it gives me both pause and pleasure to watch, speaking of work, because the question it raises is: Do I need something to do--like, a real job--or someone to love?
"Robocalypse Now," I like that. Central bankers and economists gather in Sintra, Portugal, to ponder the end of work and its implications. Here are the key grafs in the NYT story plus my comments in brackets. Then the link to the article.
"Since the beginning of the industrial age, almost every major technological innovation has led to dire predictions that humans were being permanently replaced by machines. While some kinds of jobs were lost forever, greater efficiency led to more affordable goods and other industries soaked up the excess workers."
[Yeah, labor-saving machinery displaced workers in the consumer goods industries, starting in earnest in the 1840s-50s (I periodize according to the American example). But somebody had to build the machinery, so demand for labor kept increasing; the capital goods industries grew faster than the consumer goods industries, ca. 1850s-1920s. Then technological innovation became CAPITAL-saving as well as labor-saving, and demand for labor stagnated accordingly. The Great Depression was the result. Since then, we have approximated "full employment" only because public spending has displaced private investment as the driving force of growth. But "full employment" does not and cannot reconfigure income distribution, as witness our current situation.]
. . . .
"There are other explanations for stagnant wages besides technology. [Well, duh. But what follows immediately below is not an explanation of anything; it merely notes the persistence of the "global savings glut," as Ben Bernanke, a participant in this conference, used to call it.]
"Companies in Japan, the United States and Europe are sitting on hoards of cash, doling out the money to shareholders rather than investing in new buildings, equipment or innovative products. Just why is another topic of debate.
[Actually, no, there is no debate: see “global savings glut” as above. Growth has happened absent private investment (or changes in income distribution) because the costs of doing business have plummeted, in accordance with that capital-saving trend that begins in the 1920s.]
"Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google — whose self-driving technology may someday make taxi drivers unnecessary — said that the plunging cost of information technology 'has virtually eliminated the fixed cost of entering a business.' Companies can rent software and computing power over the internet."
[In a post-industrial society like ours, information is the most basic, indispensable asset, property, or capacity. How can it be almost free? Only when the original gesture in the development of capitalism—primitive accumulation, Marx called it, whereby land and labor-power became fungible commodities to be bought and sold in markets that were suddenly society-wide—is reversed. I call it “primitive disaccumulation,” but the label doesn’t matter. It signifies the end of capitalism.]
2 more days to go. I only had a decaf coffee today.
Are you going to join us on our get fit for the holiday to burma
Contact me if you're interested
Never try to write for the ages, but always remember that your words could have a lasting effect. Today i was reminded of this maxim of my own invention by an email from Andrew Sloan, a total stranger, who enclosed his father's obituary. Five years ago I wrote at my blog about his father's sermon of July 31st, 2012, in a tiny church in Truro, Mass., where i was on vacation with my girlfriend. Ronald Sloan brought me to tears that day. His son's email had the same effect on me today. Here's a truncated version of what Andrew Sloan found on the Internet--what I wrote about his father, why he wrote me. The long version is still at the blog.
Cape Cod is a vacation resort, pure and simple, which illustrates the perverse recreational imperative of modernity: Those whom the gods would elevate they first lay waste. Build a desert, in other words, and they will come, thinking it’s a beach.
But the Cape is worth thinking about. You could say it’s the beginning and the end of the American Dream, because it’s where the Pilgrims landed—they got as far as Truro in exploring places to establish a permanent settlement, before they decided on Plymouth—and, three centuries later, it’s where we go to escape the Protestant work ethic.
The Cape is all scrub pines and scrawny maples and the voracious ground cover that 19th-century inhabitants called “false heather” or “poverty grass” (Hudsonia Tormentosa). From Eastham to Provincetown, you’re always crowded by these crabbed, man-made woods, no matter what path you’re walking or which state highway you’re driving.
The smell and the sound of pine trees surround your every other sensation. Now when the wind blows hard you won’t hear the fluted slow motion of oak leaves or the speckled, papery flutter of the maples, instead you’ll hear the constant whirring of pine needles, a stirring, breathing murmur like a church organ played with a heavy left hand, so even on a bright hot summer day trudging back from the beach you’ll think of winter, because you’ll remember that in January the other trees are silently moving their bare weathered limbs, and only the tall pines can still make any sound.
Recall what Henry David Thoreau said about the outer Cape after patrolling it in 1849 for any signs of the beautiful or the sublime and coming up empty: “After arranging to lodge at the [Highland] light-house [in Truro, built 1794], we rambled across the Cape to the Bay, over a singularly bleak and barren-looking country. . . . Above the sand, if the surface is subjected to agricultural tests, there is found to be a thin layer of soil gradually diminishing from Barnstable to Truro, where it ceases. . . . The barren aspect of the land would hardly be believed if described.”
I like the part about where the soil ceases, because that’s where I stayed, at the end of this earth, in Truro. Thoreau was quite pointed about the emptiness of the terrain, and he understood that emptiness as the absence of the trees that might have stabilized the barren plain he surveyed: “The trees were, if possible, rarer than the houses, excepting apple-trees.” Those rare trees were huddled against the scouring wind on the lee side of the dunes, like everything else he noticed out here on this pock-marked landscape—he described tiny orchards where the trees were three feet high, spreading to eight or nine feet wide, yielding stunted fruit in unpredictable spurts.
When in 1883 Shebnah Rich came to write his intimate genealogy of Truro—his family settled here in the 17th-century, he was the third generation descendent of sailors and slavers—he paid repeated homage to Thoreau’s earlier account, Cape Cod, which was published in part by Putnam’s Monthly in 1855, and finally issued as a book in 1865. This homage was a daring move for a town father, because Thoreau’s astonished emphasis on the sere waste of the outer Cape had offended its literate residents.
But Rich welcomed that emphasis as an argument for an influx of foreign capital, as if he were the publicist for an underdeveloped country rather than the governor of a Caribbean island overwhelmed by natural disaster. On his own sandy “island,” the principles of political economy would be established insofar as commerce intruded from a world elsewhere, and made modern civilization available—but first, Rich insisted, repair the land, first mend the soil. Plant pine trees.
Shebnah Rich’s family still dominates the landscape of Truro, and not just because his pine trees intrude on every space and all your senses. If you walk through the cemeteries here—there are six in the township, and I know this because the Rich Family Association published a Guide to them—you’ll find that about 10 percent of the markers, mostly stark monoliths bleached white or still black, are engraved with his surname. One whole quarter section of the Old North Cemetery off State Highway 6 was reserved just for Shebnah Rich’s family.
Indeed if you came to this end of the Cape with fresh eyes, no preconceptions, you’d have to conclude that the basic industries here are churches, cemeteries, and beaches: in other words, the re-creation of life in pointless, unproductive enterprise. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, there were fisheries and salt works, cattle fed on the hay grown in the marshes, truck farming for the growing populations of Provincetown and Barnstable. Now there are only tourists like me, who go out of our way to attend the churches and visit the cemeteries and colonize the beaches. The most strenuous and productive activity of the day is taking a walk or lighting the grill or vacuuming for sand, and each is a kind of foreplay.
But this is a comforting thought. “For the construction of a church is not a profitable use of the available labor,” as Georges Bataille, the renegade existentialist and part-time pornographer, insisted in The Accursed Share (1967), “but rather its consumption, the destruction of its utility.” The same goes for any cemetery.
As such, the sacred—the commemoration of the dead, who are never absent—always remains as an alternative to the profane for the same reason it remains as a rebuke to the parsimonious among us: intimacy, with oneself as with another, requires expenditure, loss, even sacrifice of both economic and emotional resources.
You can’t love yourself or your neighbor if you’re too intent on knowing God, too intent on the next life, as any number of Protestant divines insisted while objecting to the Catholic idea of “good works.” Those Pilgrims were never as puritanical as they seemed. Walt Whitman stood as heir apparent to their perversely secular legacy when he asked, “Why should I love God better than this day?”
So conceived, as the purposeful destruction of utility, the basic industries of Cape Cod are the perfect ending of the American Dream. “All sands are here called ‘beaches,’” Thoreau observed, “whether they are waves of water or of air, that dash against them.” And all roads lead to the Meeting House, where the monthly church picnics convene after services on the grounds of the adjacent cemetery, when the congregants are treading on hope, not sorrow, even if they pay attention to the pathetic inscriptions on these upright markers.
My Jewish girlfriend insisted we go to church on Sunday, July 31st, 2012, at the First Congregational Parish of Truro, founded 1709, moved to its present location in 1826. So we did, we walked the half mile and found the remnants of Christianity we expected: a mere fourteen others in attendance, almost all women, median age of about 70, and three of these women were official participants in the off-key music of the service.
Still, the austerity of the interior design was shocking, even to me, who grew up Methodist and so could later take Lewis Mumford and Max Weber for granted on the severe visual styles of Protestantism: when it’s just you and the Lord, just the Word, adornment of any kind is not only unnecessary, it’s unseemly. But the plain wooden crucifix above the altar—actually, it was just a raised platform with a simple rail—was so small, so minimal, that it was mesmerizing.
The sermon was also plain, small, and minimal, as delivered painstakingly by the Reverend Dr. Ronald Sloan, long since from Princeton Theological. He could barely get himself off the pastor’s chair behind the pulpit, beneath that crucifix, and limped slowly to his thankless task (how would you like to lecture sixteen students from a raised platform?). But there was re-creation in it.
The text was Matthew 14: 13-21, the moment of the Sermon on the Mount. The Reverend Sloan never got around to the content of this sermon, probably because the biblical grounding didn’t allow it, but I like to think that his reasons were more complicated and devious—it was July 31st, just before the two parties got together on a budget deal in Washington, when all sides were advocating savage cuts to “entitlements” as the condition of any “reasonable” discussion, and thus were disavowing the central principle of early Christianity, the criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”).
Reverend Sloan reminded us that it’s easy to forget God, and your neighbor, in the midst of plenty. He invoked starvation in East Africa, but he also wondered why so many children go hungry here in the United States. He insisted that the real issue before us is the just distribution—his words—of this world’s goods, and, as illustration, he kept counting the loaves and fishes available to the host gathered by Matthew’s gospel before the doomed rabbi cast his spell. “Jesus shows us there’s always enough,” the Reverend said, “if we know how to share.”
It was an almost empty church. Still, the preacher’s weary voice carried beyond this space. It was amplified by the song he chose from the Pilgrim Hymnal to close the service, # 436, “O God of Earth and Altar.” I stood and sang the hymn like everybody else, an octave lower than normal so that nobody could hear me, but my voice broke anyway when we got to the verse that included these lines: “Our earthly rulers falter, Our people live and die/ The walls of gold entomb us, These swords of scorn divide.”
Just then, in a space so stripped of ornament that it could have served as a small business conference center, I understood the extravagance of the occasion. I had stopped thinking about food and sex, being in church will tend to do that, but it occurred to me that the third fundamental reality which now obtruded—the constant presence of the dead—was no less destructive of utility than the others, and therefore no less important to the living.
Bataille was right about the insane excess of the sacred, I decided, so he was right about the implicit agenda of the cemeteries as well as the churches. In this place, once a wasteland and now a vacation resort, they serve the same purpose as the beaches.
This is the kind of thinking the Silicon Valley/venture capitalist types are doing. I like the way the guy connects the robotic displacement of workers with the impending reconstruction of international relations. Not that he's right about the connection, just that the end of work changes everything, from the social composition of small towns to the content of diplomacy.
About Chapo Trap House, yet again, let me note that I didn't like Episode 106, either, even though my book was a topic of respectful discussion. The conversation foundered on UBI on that occasion as well. I wrote about it here on May 14 and 15.
I've been rethinking my attitude toward Chapo Trap House in light of the comments on my mea culpa (below). My fundamental objection to their humor is formal, in every sense. As satire, it produces cynicism, thus abstention and release from the world as it exists. It precludes engagement with the issues at hand by protecting us from the corruptions of that world. To that extent, the happy stupidity of their humor is a religious impulse--an urge to ignore this world in favor of the next. To the same extent, it's not comedy they're peddling, it's tragedy. Go figure.
Chapo Trap House is hip, so it must follow that it's smart and funny as well, right? No fucking way. These bozos just interviewed one of their fellow clowns about the politics of a UBI, and decided that it's just "not antagonistic to capitalism" because the Silicon Valley types are for it. I have never endured a more dense barrage of bullshit since I was a sophomore in college, in a dorm room, in a drunken stupor. "I love the Soviet model," one of them chirped toward the end. Good Christ, what year is it?
Been writing about public education as ordered by a magazine editor, finding out things I didn't want to know. There's that recent Pew Research Poll, for example, showing that 58% of Republicans now say that higher education has a negative impact on American life. (85% of Republicans also approve of Trump, and see the negative impact of the media at the same rate.)
An earlier Pew Poll on the state of the job market is even more worrisome. Only 16% of Americans think that a four-year degree "prepared students very well for a well-paying job in today's economy," while 50% of them think that this is what higher education is for: to "teach job-related skills."
So, higher education exists to service a job market that is broken beyond repair. Higher education is itself breaking down under the weight of budget cuts, adjunct hiring, STEM obsessions--ugh--and the loss of faith in anything we might call the life of the mind. Welcome to my dystopia, motherfuckers.
Imagine my belated surprise as I read Harrison Fluss’s tribute to Hegel, published on Bastille Day in Jacobin, of all places. Here’s a guy who enlists Hegel to defend the Terror installed by Robespierre, and who, in doing so, invokes a notion of “rational tyranny” which bears a striking resemblance to Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat. Here's a guy who reminds me of the right-Hegelians who read The Philosophy of Right as a rationale for the Prussian state. But he claims left-Hegelian credentials by citing Bruno Bauer and, of course, Karl Marx. What’s next? Howard Roark, the missing Jacobin?
"The indictment that hangs over society is that of 'exploiting labor.' If this charge were proved, every right-minded man should become a socialist."
That’s from the preface to The Distribution of Wealth, John Bates Clark's masterpiece of 1899, where the author raised the key social issue of his day and offered his theory of marginal productivity as a way to address it. I hold no brief for marginalism, but I do admire Clark's theoretical engagement.
Don't get me wrong, I got no theories. But the indictment that hangs over imperialism is that of mere exploitation. Dependency and world systems types converge on the idea that empire is a zero-sum game, through which developmental possibilities are actually destroyed by the relation between advanced capitalist nation-states and backward areas of the world—between core and periphery.
If they're right, let us follow Clark’s exhortative example, every right-minded one of us should become an anti-imperialist and more, a socialist dedicated to the annihilation of capitalism. Are they right? I doubt it. I guess that makes me a socialist who wonders what to do about capitalism, and meanwhile thinks about imperialism as a possibly developmental device.
It's hard to make the case. Direct investment (as against portfolio holdings of government consuls) wasn't the crucial dimension of imperialism, in theory or practice, until the 1890s. Trade was. That’s why colonies and “spheres of influence” were so important. When investment superseded trade as the currency of Empire, everything changed.
It’s all still changing. The “transfer of technology” hasn’t stopped since we got over the European civil war of 1914-1945. How has that worked out, for host countries and the sources of surplus capital?
But goddamn it, either it’s an empirical question—this question of imperialism—or it’s a religious question, a doctrinal issue. It is of this world or the next. "If this charge were proved . . . ."
Nicholas Kristof (Times) and John Podhoretz (Post) have today used the same word, "disgraceful," to describe the June 2016 behavior of Donald Trump, Jr., when he was offered information from the Russian government that would damage Hillary Clinton's electoral prospects and improve his father's. What do you suppose this extremely unlikely consensus means? Cover for Daddy? Cut Junior loose, let the Larger roam his new global pasture? Or?
Memo on G-20. Donald Trump is a departure from American traditions in many ways, of course, whether liberal or conservative, but his obsession with trade and his willingness to remove the US from multilateral agreements, institutions, and sensibilities strike me as peculiarly ignorant and dangerous.
The American Empire is nothing to brag about, but its inventors, ca. 1898-1948, did improve on the imperialisms of the past by assuming that colonialism was merely, or mostly, destructive. Tariffs, protectionism, spheres of influence, and trade war led directly to real war, as the evidence of the period 1894-1945 demonstrated in blood.
Enough already with that, the Americans said, let's dismantle all barriers to the movement of finished goods and capital investment. In this way, the VOLUME of world income will grow faster, so that no nation will have to increase its SHARE of world income at the expense of another. No more colonies = no more trade wars = no more war.
I know, it sounds naive. But again, it was an improvement on past imperialisms, because it refused a military definition of world power, it insisted on the integrity of national sovereignties, and it replaced racial hierarchies with stages of economic development in periodizing civilization as such.
The Americans also said that trade was far less important than investment in the grand scheme of things imperial. Surplus capital was the big problem. So bilateral agreements on trade were not the means to the end of an open door world. Moreover, the imperial hegemon, soon to be the USA, would have to run trade deficits to balance the world's accounts, as witness the UK's global economic function in the 19th century.
Everything Trump says about trade, tariffs, sovereignty, and military power betrays a profound ignorance of these issues. Well, duh. He's ignorant of every goddamn thing. But so are his advisers, his Secretary of State, for example. This is new. Not even George W. Bush was that sealed off from the past, from American traditions, to the point of idiocy.
Doug Henwood calls the new piece in NY Mag "climate change porn"--you know, like, the eschaton is already upon us, so we might as well curl up and binge-watch whatever Netflix is streaming. Pass the doughnuts.
Me, I think David Wallace-Wells is telling us something else altogether, and of course it's quite disturbing, but also galvanizing: the entirety of history, the past as such, is now on display in the physical, measurable fractures of climate change.
We don't have to periodize anymore, as if the world is an abstraction. We can see all of it in "real time," as we now say. And because we can see it, we can act upon it.
It reminds me, perversely, of the Harlem Renaissance. Imagine that you're a young black intellectual standing at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, and it's, say, 1926. Pretend you're Langston Hughes, or Countee Cullen, or Zora Neale Hurston. The whole history of your people is passing you on the sidewalk. That recent arrival from Alabama, he's not much more than a peasant whose parents were slaves. But then you turn and you greet W. E. B. Du Bois, and you realize that your people are the omni-Americans, who now comprehend every function of modern society, from the fields to the factories to the magazines, maybe even the local office of The Crisis.
Imagine how that would feel. That's how I'm feeling about climate change courtesy of David Wallace-Wells. The compression of what we call the past has now become what we frame in narrative retrospect as History. It's become mere reality. Time zones in any and every sense have lost their meaning.
OK, before I get too carried way, here's the passage from David Wallace-Wells that set me off:
"Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once."
I don't know whether to dance ot go blind when I see this gracious response from Angela Nagle to my review of her important, indispensable book. Is that the Irish in me? Let's hope.
She says: "Loads of criticisms of the book in here but all good ones. I had all these fights with myself while writing it so part of me agrees with all of these points."
See posts below for the review.
Visiting Bruce Robbins and Elsa Stamatopoulou in lovely Psari, Greece. Bruce prepared stuffed intestines for lunch after extensive tutelage by a village elder. James Livingston to Bruce: “Intestines of what exactly?” while digging into his second helping. Bruce smiled Shirley Jacksonishly. Funny, the previous visitors haven’t been heard from lately.
Then some goats wandered by.
The acoustics of a place will tell you a lot about where you are. I’m sitting on the veranda of a stone cottage in Psari, halfway up the green mountains that guard the fertile plains of the Peloponnese. Most people would say I have a breathtaking view from here, and I do—these hulking, rounded shoulders have shrugged off everything, from the Mycenaeans to the Nazis, and so they deserve our photographic affection. But for now, I’m more interested in the sounds of this place.
What can I hear? Dogs barking frantically down the valley, probably herding sheep. Goats trundling across the street, on the way to milking, the murmur of the shepherd a bass line that underwrites the ringing bell on the lead. Children shrieking, plates rattling, mothers and fathers quarreling, cooking, coughing, and laughing as the evening settles in. Tractors on their way from smoothing the currant fields, cars changing gears on the road that runs through Psari just above the stone cottage, chain saws roaring and screaming according to their particular usage, on wood or brush. A basketball dribbled badly, a rooster crowing tardily.
Metal gates opening and closing, wooden doors sliding, as the inhabitants of the alley below pass back and forth, exchanging fruits and vegetables and gossip before dinner. Honest anger in a language I don’t comprehend, neighbor to neighbor. Hammers falling on nails, bicycle tires humming on the tarmac. Metal chimney spouts whirring above these ceramic tiles, announcing the interior modernity of modest dwellings. Leaves rustling discreetly as the wind rises and falls, birds chirping, but only occasionally, they need some rest. Flies buzzing, they never rest, anyway. My own breathing suddenly seems loud. Then, finally, Orthodox prayers broadcast from the big church (one of seven in a village of 385 inhabitants) at the east end of town.
Everything is amplified by the stucco walls and the terracotta roof tiles. I can hear where I am because sounds ricochet here, dying down only gradually. They linger, as the inhabitants tend to do, making every personal encounter a 20-minute discovery of what happened in the previous 24 hours.
Of course it’s a beautiful vista, reminding me of both antiquity and modernity, when those formative wars were fought right here, on these mountains. The sounds of the place have the same effect on me.
A funny thing happened on our way to the Peloponnese, there to visit our old friends Bruce Robbins and Elsa Stamatopolou in her ancestral village of Psari. (Yes, last night we feasted on Thia Eleni’s stuffed zucchini flowerets: amazing!) We flew through Istanbul because the flights were cheap and non-stop, just another hour to Athens and the train to Kiato—anything is better than going through Heathrow. But we decided to stay four nights in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, where Europe and Asia do not so much meet as collide.
I took a real dislike to the place. Probably because I’m a parochial American tourist who is totally uninterested in seeing the appropriate sites, whether mosques or museums. My preferred modus operandi in worlds elsewhere is to sit around in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, whatever, watching the people around me and talking to them as possible or necessary. Walking and wondering about where I am also work for me.
I guess we could have done that, but walking in Istanbul is no fun, not even where we stayed, in Belaglyu, the cool section on the European side of town (the western side of the Straits), where the former homes of bankers and pashas have been converted to commercial purposes. The spine of the old neighborhood, Isstiklal Ave, just three blocks up from our Airbnb, was a mall under construction, all noise and dust and hurried shoppers—also a Starbucks, an H & M. Not many tourists in sight. No American tourists, that’s for sure. The State Department has warned us off Turkey (for good reasons).
To get to the mundane sights—we wanted to explore Kadikoy or Uskadar, on the Asian side—you take a water ferry from Emminonu, a small commuter port on the north edge of the Golden Horn. But to get there from Belaglyu, you take the subway to Halic, then cross the river on a pedestrian bridge. It sounds easy, but it’s a trek, about a half mile, because the subway stop is only halfway across the river. Then you stump around the other side until you find the ticket office of the ferry you want.
The subway system is perfectly efficient once you get to the platform. The trouble is that, by my reckoning, the platform at the Shisane station on Isstiklal is 14-18 stories below grade, at least a quarter mile. It took us 15 minutes to get from the entrance on the street to the platform. My guess is that the engineers who built the thing in the 1960s were trying to keep the tracks level, more or less, so they drilled that deep—remember, that subway stop at Halic, over the river, is above ground.
We decided on the fly to visit Uskadar, mainly because everyone on the dock understood me to be saying Karachoy instead of Kadikoy. Karachoy is just opposite Emminonu, not even a half mile of river, Kadikoy is across the Straits, well south of Uskadar. Talk about a language barrier.
The ferry ride was the best part of our brief foray into Asia—you can see most of treeless Istanbul from the Straits. By the time we disembarked, it was almost 2:00, we were both ravenous, and I was craving a local beer, a Bomonti, 50cl. As we hustled up the steps from the docks to find a restaurant, I started thinking that this was not the place to find what we wanted: the cafes closest to the water and likely to gather a good breeze were also adjacent to the mosque: uh oh.
Sure enough, the Sea Point restaurant—like everything else desirable in Istanbul, up four flights of stairs or at the top of a cobblestoned hill—served no alcohol. We ordered an omelette and beef noodles at 2:00. At 2:50 the food arrived. (They got my order wrong, but I wasn’t about to wait for the re-order.) Meanwhile, no breeze, no beer, just Coca-Cola. Ugh.
After lunch, we walked around the interior of the city for a half hour. I never saw a bar or a restaurant. Two coffee shops, OK, and phone stores galore, but nothing that suggested any prospect of enjoyment or indolence. It looked and felt like Jerome Ave in the Bronx—mechanical, industrial, electronic repair, but without the grace notes to be found in the shade of the elevated line and the wholesale liquor warehouses: America without alcohol, ambition without rest.
We disembarked at Karachoy instead of Emminonu, thinking the walk back to the subway would be more direct. It was, but the path led through hell. The sidewalks in Istanbul are narrow and treacherous to begin with, but the little precinct of Karachoy has effectively abolished them by letting the hardware merchants use them as a parking lot for their products. So you’re dodging chain saws or welding equipment on one side and cars on the other.
Altogether, an ugly day.
The next day started off just as badly because I had to get to the Istanbul Apple Store for a charger—of course I brought one, but it was the wrong one. That meant two taxis to the swanky side of town, where everybody suddenly speaks English, and one back. The first driver dropped me at the Apple management headquarters, not the store, and I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose (Turkish cabbies are notorious for their feigned stupidity and their totally arbitrary fares). The second driver took me to my actual destination because the receptionist in the headquarters building wrote out the right address in Turkish. The return trip was a nightmare because even though I was able to say my address in phonetical Turkish, and show him the address of a restaurant nearby, he seemed totally befuddled. He stopped three times to ask fellow drivers where I was going, the last time when we were within 100 yards of the restaurant. I finally recognized the neighborhood and told him to drop me there.
By Friday, we were both exhausted by this city. But we persevered. We spent the afternoon in the Golden Horn, in the vicinity of Istanbul University, the scene of intellectual massacre by political means since Erdogan imposed his state of emergency. We visited the Suleymaniye Mosque, the magnificent blue one designed and built by the great architect Mimar Sirhan in the 16th century to rival Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. It’s a busy, colorful, yet peaceful place—there is no angle from which the structure looks ungainly. And for all its references to Byzantine predecessors, the various domes, large and small, seem to supply a gravitational force that keeps everything at eye level, somehow rooting you here, in this time and space, not drawing you back toward the 16th century but reminding you of your own. All this overlooking those fateful Straits.
Then we headed for the legendary Grand Bazaar, a square mile of grottoes bristling with, well, with whatever you want. 4,000 shops in all, says Wikipedia—which, by the way, you can’t access in Turkey because Erdogan believes it contains too much subversive information—but we visited just two, one to admire the rugs, the other to buy some spices as a gift for our hosts in Greece. In this second place, the proprietor gave us what he called “Turkish Delight,” but it was far from delightful: soylent green painted with purple sugar, how’s that sound? Like a moron, I just popped the gelatinous cube in my mouth, and then had to wash it down with, what else, Coca-Cola. My girlfriend thought this was a hilarious spectacle, me gagging on Turkish candy in the Grand Bazaar, erasing its effects with the quintessential American beverage, meanwhile suppressing the urge to turn myself inside out—and I suppose it was. (She herself wisely took a nibble, grimaced, and discretely discarded it.)
To exit the Bazaar, we climbed 15th-century steps and found our way through open- air hardware stalls until we came to shoulder-width stairs leading down to the street. We were back on the University campus, close to our subway stop.
Our last day in Istanbul was actually fun. We visited Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Belaglyu—we’d both been reading the novel of the same name in differently desultory ways—had a quick lunch, and then shipped out for Buyukada, the town that anchors the largest of the four Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmora, there to meet the novelist himself for dinner, thanks to the social engineering of Bruce Robbins, who teaches with Pamuk at Columbia. The ferry, packed tightly with families on day trips, took about 90 minutes from Emminonu to the big island. We arrived at 5:30.
As my girlfriend noted while we circumnavigated the center of town, the place looks and feels like Key West or Provincetown without the bars—plenty of restaurants and hotels and canvas-covered stalls selling fast food or jewelry, to be sure, but no drinking establishments as such. We stopped twice, once to share a beer, once to share yet another Coca-Cola.
Pamuk met us under the clock tower at 7:45 and walked us down to a waterfront restaurant, Mitro, where the proprietors greeted him as what he is—a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a point of national pride, and a critic of the Erdogan regime, not necessarily in that order.
Dinner conversation was equal parts politics and letters. I asked him about the situation of the writer in opposition to Erdogan. He spoke of limits, dwindling choices, the courage of convictions. Twelve of the fourteen periodicals now extant in Turkey are partisans of the regime, and the other two have few opportunities to publish political criticism without reprisals. So this writer speaks his mind in international venues and hopes for the best. He’s suspicious of the so-called left-wing opposition because it sold out the Kurds. He’s constantly beseeched to help fellow writers, journalists, and intellectuals who are in trouble with the regime, or asked to support one party program or another—his name would lend weight to any cause in Turkey. He does what he can, but he refuses, like Vaclav Havel, to reduce his writing life, or his public presence, to a political program.
My girlfriend asked him if his reputation as a distinguished writer—he’s not exactly a household name in the US, but in Europe he’s well known—protects him from the regime’s idiocies. “Up to a point,” he said. Five years ago he might have been untouchable, but as the luster of his prize diminishes with the mere passage of time, and the scope of the regime’s ambitions metastasize with each new “success” in silencing dissent, there’s no telling.
Are you, then, afraid, she asked. And he bravely said, “Of course I am.”
That reminded me of what Philip Roth once said about the intellectual difference between the East and the West—this was back in the late 1970s, when Eastern Europe was already aiming beyond its accustomed orbit as a Soviet satellite. It was simple, he said: Over there, nothing is possible and everything matters, while over here, anything is possible, and nothing matters.
When the conversation turned from politics to letters, things got even more interesting. By his own accounting, this writer is meticulous in every sense, to the point of obsessive-compulsive anality. He collects things, including profuse facts about the Turkish nation’s coming of age in the 45 years after Ataturk, not as verification or proof of his fictional claims, but as if they are themselves already ideas that don’t need explanation. The charm of the Museum (he designed it down to its last detail) resides in this antic, childlike belief in the spirit of phenomenology—the notion that thoughts are things, and vice-versa. Inside the museum, you feel as if the Walt Whitman who wrote “Song for Occupations,” which concludes with warrantee deeds loafing in chairs opposite the poet himself, has been set free in Istanbul. One whole wall has 4,213 cigarette butts pinned to a canvas, under glass, like butterflies under Nabokov’s supervision, each annotated according to the date of the tryst celebrated by post-coital smoking.
As I read Pamuk’s accumulative agenda, the psychological (individual) and the historical (social) dimensions of modernity are meant to meet here, in the sentences that conjure objects—toys, earrings, dresses, keys, time-pieces, tools, automobiles—which refuse the status of the symbolic. They don’t represent anything except everything, the interiority of the modern bourgeois individual. They’re not “external” to such an individual, as ornament is to edifice. Being saturated with desire and purpose, they are the edifice itself.
That’s me thinking, not him talking. Like most novelists, he resists the notion that some theory is validated by his fictions. Like most historians, I do, too.
Late into dinner, the novelist made what he thought was a rueful admission, that he begins writing with a “gimmick,” and keeps going insofar as he can still take it seriously as the occasion for a believable narrative. A Maguffin, we both exclaimed! After appropriate explanation, he liked the effects, or at least the possibilities, of this Hitchcockian device.
For it is a good way to earn the innocence every narrative needs to be convincing. By this I mean that the stories that last, whether fiction or non-fiction, typically mix the accidental and the inevitable, shaping the random sequence of everyday life, of real events, into an intelligible moral-temporal order that, in turn, creates subjectivities—in other words, characters we can believe in.
The “gimmick” or the Maguffin is the white whale, the Maltese Falcon, the earring, the madeleine, the Winchester ’73, the object or incident that won’t stand for random sequence. Somehow it propels us beyond the world as it exists, asking us to find and map and order another, a world elsewhere, which is different but not necessarily better than where we started. I say “order” with emphasis because no matter how incongruent this new world seems, we need to know it’s intelligible and therefore inhabitable—it has rules and boundaries. Of course these will be violated in due time, as the story unfolds, but the world they define is nonetheless new.
This pronouncement makes me think that as a traveller from what used to be known as the New World, I ought to know that to “make it new” is, often enough, to merely acknowledge the old, even the ancient—and to realize that what seems old, even ancient, is not.
Yeah, Scaramucci is a creep, but you gotta thank him for breaking the NYT's taboo on the f-word. How else would it have been able to convey the grotesque melodrama of this White House? To my mind, a rhetorical breakthrough that will let reporters portray the world more realistically, as it is rather than as editors would like.