Haven't posted here in awhile, as I post most of my photos on Instagram.com/myspacetom - But here's one from last Winter, just before Xmas :) Ice caves can be a bit dangerous, so I went with a guide. In addition to being an expert in cave safety, he makes a good model and held incredibly still for this slightly longish exposure. (It's actually a little darker in this cave than it looks.) Gotta love Iceland!
You want to evade the solipsistic idiocies of convalescence, when Hannah Arendt begins to sound like a journalist, and Monty Python's parody of Pilgrim's Progress becomes profound?
(1) Bring a friend who is not totally embarrassed by your condition. I would emphasize "totally" because he or she is going to be disgusted by whatever you say or do, but then so will you be.
(2) Get a haircut. Your barber has tools, he's rented chairs, he knows how mobile this trade is. All right, then, get him to your place. Give him a beer and a big tip.
(3) Call the doctor. Prattle on about swelling, pain, and bowel movements, the key words in the lexicon of outpatient care. "Stool" seems to be the word of the moment. Make the most of it. Luther can help here. Keep him in mind as you approach the privy.
(4) Speaking of the privy. Pop those pills, but also their digestive armature. You have the orange-striped vial that conveys controlled substance, right? Good for you. Get along, little doggy.
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." A. Lincoln, ca. 1857. I've been writing about this uncanny negation of a negation--the master himself is unfree--as an answer to the Communist Manifesto: "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."
The point is that individualism as enfranchised by liberalism is an essential component of modern socialism, whether utopian or scientific. "Only Hegel is fit for America," as Whitman explained, and as Emerson understood. Oy, our fathers, whose art unleavens, hallowed be thy fame.
All by way of preface to my dream of last night. It was a party, I think, because the place--a room?--overflowed with paper plates and plastic forks, also ragged pieces of cake. Marx was there. I was, too, anxiously accepting delivery of stove-pipe hats. I passed them out. I looked for Engels. The place was below grade, an old pub maybe, windows at ceiling level, so it was very dark, smoky as well I guess because it was hard to breathe. Nobody spoke any words I could hear, but it was very loud, clamorous even. We were waiting for someone, something.
Civil War: Irrepressible Conflict or Needless Tragedy? Vietnam War: Ditto. That’s how the cameras work where Ken Burns does the directing.
Down there on the ground, where the good soldiers bleed and the bloated bodies float on a river of words, you know that something important happened, but in this narrative universe, the politicians never get there, to the point where they could say, “Wow, that’s a lot of suffering, maybe we should talk?” And that’s the point. War is bad. No matter what the cause, the politicians don’t get it, but see, we do!
Dear Ken: Grow the Fuck Up. The Civil Was not about valorous Southern sacrifice, no matter how charming Shelby Foote can be. It was about the atrocity of slavery. The Vietnam War was not about how the people of that place and time were in polite search for another way to “reunite their country.” It was about how to remove imperial monstrosities, first the French and then the US—those who imposed the division--from their future.
”Having failed to reconcile with one another despite their enormous sacrifice, many Vietnamese have begun to ask themselves whether the war was necessary, whether some other way might have been found to reunite their country.”
Nah. They’re saying, I had a country, and you stole it. So I took it back from you.
Here's Part 2 of my conversation with Andrew Hartman about Liberalism and the Left, posted at the USIH website. In Part 3, we'll draw on "A Tale of Two Liberalisms," my work in progress that explores the parallel histories of neoliberalism and perestroika in the late-20th century. I think it does, anyway.
Home for a half hour, after a harrowing struggle to get here. Discharged at noon, but the wheelchair doesn't arrive in the room until 2:25. Bad omen.
Then we get a Lyft out in front of the Millstein Pavilion. The driver speaks no English whatsoever, but this seems a trivial detail as he helps me into the car--you know, like those guys on the Japanese subway platforms used to do it, heave-ho, heave-ho. I'm sure the right leg will now require amputation. On the other hand, I'll be home to watch it fall away, like the receding rocket stages of the spacecraft we watched on TV from the astronaut's point of view.
The driver stares at his GPS and takes a right onto Ft Washington, headed downtown, and then another right onto 163rd, headed west for the light at Riverside Drive, so I mumble something about directions rendered by Google, and then start screaming when he turns right onto the Drive, apparently headed NORTH for 178th and a route to the FDR on the far east side on Manhattan. The fucking FDR to get to 123rd and Lenox from 163rd and Ft. Washington? We're overlooking the Hudson but you want to drive to the Harlem River on 178th to get down to 123rd?
He has no idea what I'm saying, and he keeps pointing at the GPS, meanwhile laughing. I finally get him pointed downtown. At every opportunity, he wants to turn left, to get to the FDR, because that's what the Chinese voice on the dashboard keeps saying. I keep screaming "straight!" (By now we're heading downtown on Amsterdam.) I also keep saying "This isn't funny," especially since he can't seem to drive any faster than 20 mph.
Now I can't imagine driving a cab in Beijing without a word of Chinese, not even "left" and "right." But this is almost criminally insane, to send drivers out so badly equipped that they can't navigate anything, neither the language nor the streets; for at that point, they might as well be US armed forces in Baghdad, in 2005.
Since 2010 I've undergone five invasive surgeries--I'm the local, bodily equivalent of Afghanistan--and tomorrow the geopoliticians in green will do another by replacing my right hip. OK, mix the metaphor, call me Robocop. "They'll fix you. They fix everything," he says at the end, awash in the rusted water of Detroit. I wonder.
Got until midnight to ingest anything I want, and then it's wait--abstain--until I wake on the other side of this life. Now I lay me down to sleep, do I pray the Lord my soul to keep? Nah. He's got enough inventory on his hands, and my soul is most definitely not rested. I like to think I'm his worst nightmare, but don't we all? Job and the Dude abide, always the guys who never wanted the role in the first place.
So I have concocted a White Russian, and I'm eating leftover pizza, also chocolate-laced pastry delivered some days ago by my girlfriend, all appropriately microwaved. On the morrow, I shall arrive at the appointed time, and my only question, once I fill out the forms, will be "When?"
Issue # 8 of POLITICS/LETTERS is live! Bruce Robbins guided it into life--the bulk of it is a set of papers on John Berger that came out of a conference Bruce organized at Columbia. (I mostly looked on as I wondered why my right leg threatened to fall off: it's the hip, you silly man!)
Among the features are podcasts with Laura Kipnis and Jessa Crispin. Also my interview with Andrew Hartman on liberalism and the Left, originally from USIH. Read on!
Part 2 of my conversation with Andrew Hartman is on its way. Meanwhile, let me introduce Ingrid Rowland's wonderful piece in the NYRB with a question, and a true story. What do Luther, Shakespeare, Melancthon, Duhrer, Marlowe, Hamlet, Faust, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and, yes, poor Guildenstern have in common? Also Andrew.
And now for the story. When my marriage was blowing up in 1999, a friend invited me to his East Village townhouse for a dinner party, sans spouse. His wife was a staff writer at the NYT, so the huge dinner table was populated by many of this same species, all of whom had strong opinions they were willing to amend in a heartbeat, as soon as somebody else offered another.
The parlor game on that evening was "Who is the person of the
millennium"--like, the most important or emblematic man or woman of the last thousand years? You know, as if we were deciding Time's Man of the Year Cover multiplied by ten centuries. Whew. I'm pretty sure the person on my left was Gail Collins because she was loud and funny and never stopped talking, qualities I admire in anyone.
I said "Martin Luther." Nobody heard me, which is a good thing, because I might have been interrogated about the man's serious anti-semitism. I revised, and said, "Hegel," who was, after all, a fan of Luther. The person on my left whirled around and said "Bagel?! My god, if only it was a person!" We laughed, but It stayed an inside joke because everybody else was buzzing with 19th-century candidates.
"Marx," I whimpered, and gulped some more wine. "Are you a Marxist?" the person on my left asked. "Yeah, sort of," I said. I had finally joined the conversation.
The intellectually muscular James Livingston on why the left needs liberalism (and vice versa), and the perils of a left more interested in equality than liberty--namely, relying on authoritarian state power to achieve it, ie Title IX inquisitions. "The novelty of the current Left’s anti-liberal animus is not that it exists, but that its headquarters are to be found on campus and in the art world, where liberal toleration, free speech, and intellectual diversity once reigned."
Enough already with the fascist Trump's pledge of allegiance to blood and soil, also Putin. Let's get serious--let me sell you a coffee-maker! To my knowledge, I've never shilled for a product that wasn't a book. I've sold shoes and men's clothes in department stores, sure, but I wasn't personally vouching for the items, the company (Sears) was. And I wasn't exactly selling those books, either. Or was I?
Anyway, two weeks ago the old inherited Starbucks espresso machine finally broke down, and started spewing wet coffee grounds all over the kitchen counter. It looked exactly like the shit had finally hit the fan. What was to be done?
I relied, in the first and last instance, on the research techniques and refined tastes of my girlfriend, who actually reads the reviews and knows what a "price point" is. The result was my purchase (and hers) of a DeLonghi Model EC680, called a "Dedica." It was cheap, it looks sort of like a miniature motorcycle, it's incredibly easy to operate, and it makes great coffee.
The sleek EC680 weighs a third and takes up less than half the counter space of the giant, squat Starbucks machine. You can empty and refill the reservoir in 30 seconds, where it took 5 minutes, many moving parts, and much profanity to do so with the Starbucks. You can change the temperature of the finished coffee according to your taste, you can warm the cups beforehand on top of the machine, and you can make two demitasses at once.
What's not to like? And now, this . . . . President Trump has announced the purchase by Vladimir Putin, for an undisclosed price, of Blair House, the storied residence in Washington D.C, that, in close proximity to the White House, has long accommodated diplomats, statesmen, dissenters, and dictators, according to the preferences of the sitting President. At a joint press conference with Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin said he was delighted with his purchase, explaining that he had been looking for a vacation home in the US for many years, and planned to spend at least two months a year in this country. President Trump, for his part, said that his associates were scouring the real estate offerings on the shores of the Black Sea, and had narrowed the choices down to three dachas the size of Mar-A-Lago. Mr. Putin would, he said, be a frequent guest.
The NY Times, is it a-changin'? Consider four opinion pieces it has published in just the last two days. A long interview with Noam Chomsky, still the most savage critic of US foreign policy.
An impassioned essay by Julie Garfield about the anti-communist witch hunt that ended not merely her father's career but his life; her real target is Trump's whining about the FBI.
A blistering attack on Sean Hannity and the Yahoos from FOX "News" by Bret Stephens, the paper's new *conservative* voice. OK, he admires William F. Buckley, Jr., the most lazy mind of the 20th century. You can't ask for everything all at once.
Finally, a proposal for an international New Deal from Yanis Varoufakis, a founder of Syriza and a fierce critic of neo-liberalism. It's a radical but practical program that makes the cooperation of central and public banks the key to mobilizing and investing the global savings glut. (I pasted it below.)
It's true, I'm an optimist by nature, but could it be that one effect of the Sanders insurgency is a new openness to ideas on and from the Left?
You might have thought that Showerman had faded into superhero superannuation, but no, he's here to report several milestones. He's back to taking a shower a day, even when he doesn't plan on seeing his girlfriend--no chair necessary to hoist himself in and out of the tub, mere bending of newly flexible legs does the trick.
He has also clipped his toenails, donned socks, and put on real shoes (as against the sandals he'd been wearing everywhere). These acts may sound trivial to those of you with original equipment, but to Showerman, they're major achievements.
Finally, Showerman went for a walk today, just for fun, and it never occurred to him to bring the cane. He doesn't walk as fast as his neighbors, but he looks good, no limping allowed. By the time he gets to the Peloponnese, in August, he's gonna be ready to hike that mountain range to the north of Psari.
This just in. From the distance of 30 feet, Showerman, a former vegetarian, heard a mousetrap suddenly close with metallic finality. His girlfriend, who thinks he's a mild-mannered professor of History--gainfully employed and all that--said many words in a high-pitched voice that he quickly translated as "Eeek!"
He rushed to the scene on his artificial pins, and, yes, found a mouse fairly decapitated by a high-tech trap. He wrapped both rodent and machine in a plastic bag, placed it in the garbage, and announced the results to his girlfriend, who, because Showerman was, as always, on duty, never even saw the little critter.
As a reward for his efforts, she went to the Duane-Reade, bought some Haagen Daz, and prepared a mocha-chocolate milk shake for the superhero in residence, who, she thinks, has lost too much weight (12 lbs.) since he's become addicted to Oxycodone (she actually hides his stash when people come over, because urban legend tells us that dinner guests are likely to raid the medicine cabinet).
Trump’s tweets about Mika Bzrezinski and his earlier utterance about Megyn Kelly don’t prove he has a weak, childlike ego, or is a psychopath. Nor do his remarks about “dating” his daughter indicate that he’s incapable of sublimation according to the first Oedipal commandment, against incest. They prove something else—that he’s a fascist, pure and simple. To my mind, this diagnosis is more disturbing than the others.
When the tweets surfaced last Thursday, I reached for Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (1977, trans. 1987-89) a massive 2-volume study of the Freikorps—the freelance German regiments assembled in 1918 to fight working-class insurrection wherever it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe—and its fascist progeny. (The Freikorps supplied the Nazis with a surprisingly large proportion of leaders and officers.)
I suppose I was dimly remembering how Theweleit had enlisted Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari to fundamentally revise Freud’s theories of the unconscious, repression, sexuality, psychosis, and, on that basis, to explain fascism as a highly specific mode of producing reality.
In their terms, fascism is to be understood not as a form of government or a social system or a psychological deviation or a personality disorder, but as the production of a reality in which females represent a red flood of blood that must be staunched—for that flood carries with it every contaminant of modern-industrial life, including communism, and every threat to traditional, inherited hierarchies, including sexual freedom as defined by women themselves. The subtitle of Volume 1 is Women, Floods, Bodies, History.
Fascists, so conceived, are not men who can be treated for their symptoms and “restored” to rationality in the sense that the analyst makes them aware of their repressed and therefore unconscious fears, desires, wishes, and anxieties (or in the sense that they can be disabused of their fantasies by facing the facts). The return of the repressed to consciousness has no meaning for the fascist—for Donald Trump— because his “unconscious” has no interiorized content born of repression: his ego is not born of the renunciations we attribute to the resolution of the Oedipus complex (the incest taboo, to begin with).
The fascist’s fears of castration, of menstruation, of penetration, of the dissolution of ego boundaries, and so forth, aren’t buried deep within a psyche huddled against the external world. In fact, Trump speaks freely and frequently of these fears: his “unconscious” is already social, not a once-private state that, when made public, cancels his fantasies and returns him to rationality. For the fascist, there are no private states. How could there be?
Trump denies he has a small penis, he insults a journalist by insinuating that her unwanted questions flow from a menstrual source, he insists that neither Muslims nor Mexicans will pass through the barriers he imposes, and that China has had its way with us—has “taken advantage of us”—for too long. And now he insults another female journalist for, what else, bleeding. “Bodily fluids bother him,” his biographer says.
Here’s Theweleit, at the hinge of the argument in Volume 1.
“On the other hand, it would also be wrong simply to define these men [the Freikorps officers and their literary minions] as ‘psychotics.’ They do not, in fact, seem to possess the Oedipal ‘ego,’ and yet they are not, for that reason, in any way, ‘unadapted to reality,’ nor do they have ‘weak egos’ or any other such disorder. After all, they were triumphantly effective in founding their very own empire [their very own reality] in the future. In many respects, they were extremely successful; their mode of writing is controlled, in a manner which ‘psychotics’ would hardly be capable of . . . By what type of ego, if it is not the Oedipal, do these men stabilize and control themselves?” (1: 209-10)
That is the question: what type of ego does the fascist manifest, if not the Oedipal ego steeped in guilt and animated by fears of incest and castration? Here Freud’s late insights into masochism become indispensable, because the fascist is first and foremost the man who revels in his own suffering at the hands of the women who flood the world with their unruly desires and treacherous lies. The masochist loves the violence done to his body, literally and figuratively, because the perturbation, the dissolution, that follows puts his ego and his object choices in motion, all at once—he’s suddenly free of the past, returned to the (pubescent) state before the familiar Oedipal renunciations made him an adult.
Certainly the chronicles of the Freikorps suggest as much. So do Trump’s otherwise inexplicable responses to female journalists, going back to Gail Collins (see NYT 7/1/2017): his tweets read like obscene notes passed around in grade school.
But how does it work, this perturbation, this dissolution? As always, Freud put it in terms of gendered identity. “In the case of the girl what was originally a masochistic (passive) situation is transformed into a sadistic one by means of repression, and its sexual quality is almost effaced. In the case of the boy, the situation remains masochistic.” Why? The boy “evades his homosexuality by repressing and remodeling his unconscious phantasy [of being beaten], and the remarkable thing about his later conscious phantasy is that it has for its content a feminine [passive] attitude without a homosexual object-choice.”
So, Freud was fascinated by male masochism for a good reason. Two consequences follow from this subjection of oneself to humiliation as accompanied or enforced or explained by the endurance of violence at the hands of the unworthy—the female, to be sure, but also the larger, ignorant mass. First, an emotional solidarity of men is created: they become a category, a class-action set of victims who have succumbed to feminine wiles and to feminism as such. Second, “morality becomes sexualized once more [and] the Oedipus complex is revived.” In other words, the abjection experienced in masochism permits a revision of the ego determined by the normal resolutions of the Oedipus complex. That revision reanimates gender identities that might have been fixed without the revisit.
So what? Many if not most of the comrades suggest that these tweets are epiphenomenal, superficial manifestations of a problematic personality—to pay attention to Trump’s idiocy at this level of utterance is to distract us from the real economic issues at hand, on the Congressional terrain where class warfare has been declared in the form of “debate” on health care.
To which I say: bullshit. These tweets are the heart of the matter. As Angela Nagle’s new book, Kill the Normies, demonstrates in nauseating detail—it is very hard, but essential, to read this book—the alt-right that brought Trump to power is unified by one thing, and one thing only: misogyny on a scale that is hard to believe.
So, if we think with Theweleit, we concentrate on what the comrades assume is epiphenomenal—the consistent extremity and the eager idiocy of Trump’s “throwaway” lines. We think, accordingly, that his constituents aren’t psychopathic, or lacking strong egos, or curable by therapy, or correctable by “facts.” We think that they’re nonetheless dangerous, and treat them as the enemy.
Last night we hosted a send-off for Bruce Robbins, who leaves for the Peloponnese tomorrow. July 4th kind of thing, burgers, hotdogs, rivers of ketchup, residual streams of mustard, buns without purpose, food without end. And there we we were on the rooftop, staring downtown at spastic fireworks and every spire in sight, asking ourselves, where are we?
The question we addressed when off the rooftop was more simple but more painful--OK, it was the same question, posed differently. Why do we write? One of the participants was a an award-winning playwright, and he had some strong opinions. He insisted that "changing the world" through words was a fool's errand. The rest of us disagreed, respectfully but vehemently, saying that we wouldn't even try if we didn't think we'd be making a difference. That changing ourselves by writing could be the first stage of the impulse, but beyond that, we want to believe our words are tools, devices, material leverage against--what?--power.
And then what? When power makes a fool of itself, what is the function of truth? That is, of writing?
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.