February 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Night thoughts about Philip Seymour Hoffman

I feel the need to apologize in advance for speaking uncharitably of a man who died, but the deep and abiding trope bothers me that we will not just forgive an artist certain demons, but will speak of him as if they did not exist. I think the latter phenomenon is driven more by our own need for things to make sense, than by any compassion for the dead. I can’t help thinking that if a famous actor died robbing a bank or trying to assault a child, such forgiveness would be disturbed and disturbing, so why should it not be if he died with a needle in his arm? Yes, I get the philosophical distinction between violence against others and against oneself, but that distinction is not as important, or as clear cut, as we would like it to be anyway. That anyone who has small children would inject heroin seems like an immense abdication to me. I have known alcoholic and drug addicted people and am not a virgin myself when it comes to substances, but the missing element when people talk forgivingly about artists with problems is the immense vanity of the addiction show. We have an idea that people with some kind of terrible lack in their soul fall easily--there’s always a bottle of booze around, or a liquor store on the corner, or a misguided friend or mercenary bartender eager to pour you a shot. To shoot heroin, you likely first have to go to a dicey part of town, conduct a business transaction, then cook the ingredients, raise a vein…...not something that can happen so accidentally, as it is actually a lot of work. Yeats set up what I’ve come to think is a false opposition, between perfection of the life and of the work. I wonder whether there can really be perfection of the work in any meaningful way if the life isn’t somewhat in order first. Yes, there can be drama and charisma and other things which may pass for compelling work, but I would like to think that nobody can be straight with me, with their public, who is not straight with their own small child.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was always in the environment; I am not sure how often I saw him in person, but remember as a teenager thinking he couldn’t be a real celebrity if he came out so often to attend quite small gatherings. I didn’t understand that he didn’t do it for the reason that yesterday’s stars signed autographs at comic shows (which were not so prestigious thirty years ago as now): he didn’t need the attention, but loved being around people gathered in a cause he believed in. Something I’ve acquired too, and maybe I got it from him a bit: Pete Seeger came out to warm himself at the fires of Occupy much as I did, because it warms old progressive bones to be around luminescent young people.

Seeger was the example of the merger of life and work I imagined two paragraphs above. He didn’t get high and misbehave in public, rant at audiences, collapse onstage, cheat on his wife or do Chevrolet commercials (like Bob Dylan just did). He had the private, modest, intense and rather beautiful gentle certainty of someone who knew an absolute truth without therefore believing that anyone else should be killed for not believing it. Along the way, he made some remarkable songs which were always in the air my whole life, some of which I never knew were his: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”. It made my life better just knowing he was out there somewhere, and I think I actually wanted him to live forever. But I know he did the absolute best he could.

Shame on Cuomo

One of the disgusting immoralities of government is the way money earmarked for a purpose sometimes vanishes to pay general liabilities. State lotteries are a disturbing phenomenon even before you find out the funds aren’t really used to support education. Governor Cuomo of New York is now fighting the state’s attorney general for control over the proceeds of a mortgage settlement with the big, predatory banks. The federal and state governments have done far more to bail out the banks then they have done to relieve the suffering of the people losing their houses, and this fund was supposed to be spent to help those people. Cuomo wants to use it to pay general bills and to be able to boast of a state surplus that doesn’t really exist. He is a bad, vain governor and not even an ascertainable liberal.

Chris Christie

I hope Christie found that traffic jam so satisfying that he doesn’t mind having traded the Presidency for it.

The Texas life support case

To this day, Texas has the ability to shock me for mean cluelessness, and I have spent a lot of time there and gotten to know Texans. Keeping a pregnant dead woman connected to life support was not very far away, on a moral level, from inseminating comatose women and using them as incubators. When I see women crusading against abortion, I am astonished that they don’t seem to understand the fact that to most of their male cohorts, a woman’s reproductive anatomy is a public resource, in which she has no individual rights. Texans in pursuit of a conservative idea are always terribly mean to the individuals who are in the way or ineluctably involved in the underlying drama, and my heart broke for the husband and family. The spectacle went on far too long before the court ordered her and her family’s wishes respected, in the face of the state to whom she and they were merely things, not people. I blame the history of Texas, which may seem like ancient history but was barely yesterday: it takes a while to recover equilibrium from a world of war, land grabs, slavery and braggadocio. I think the politics of today in Texas is not far removed from that of 150 and 200 years ago.

Minimum wage

The middle classes, and the upward mobility path to entry, are under attack in so many different ways its hard to specify; whenever I try to list a few of them, as I do in this month’s lead article, I start to lose hope and focus, and imagine your mind sliding away to some more cheerful topic. But a major contribution to the destruction is the widening gap between annual salary and the price of renting even a modest apartment. In New York City, where I live, a lot of young people with college educations work entry level jobs where they can afford about $800 or $1000 a month for rent. The problem is, there aren’t any $1000 apartments any more, so five or six people pile up in a $3000 apartment which was designed to house two or three. In most jobs, they will never earn three times what they are making today--only Wall Street offers that (even the law doesn’t consistently any more) and not everyone can work on Wall Street. So they will never be able to afford a New York apartment of their own. Some of these people leave, and we know others in their mid-40’s still crammed in to shared apartments. You would think that the right way to run a democratic economy would be to seek some balance between salaries and rentals, so that most people could afford a modest apartment, but we apparently stopped trying to do that long ago.

Anyway, that was a long way of highlighting the absurdity of the fight over raising minimum wage to $10, as that still constitutes a salary, $20,000, on which nobody can live in any American city. We need people to work behind the counter at fast food restaurants, and to mop the floor st Grand Central station, but care nothing about the conditions under which they live. That reminds me that as an EMT I once pronounced a man dead who was living in his car behind the hardware store where he worked. He had died on a cold night of carbon monoxide poisoning as he had left the car running to keep warm. I suppose that’s just the price we pay for liberty--for the liberty of billionaires to tear down affordable housing and replace it with luxury condos which are then largely bought by foreign billionaires who use them a month a year. New York is a hell of a town.

Almost without comment

One population you probably would least want cheating on exams is the people responsible for the maintenance of the aging nuclear arsenal. But thats just me.

FISA Court

I have probably said this before, but I was also really shocked by the revelation that there is a secret foreign intelligence surveillance court which reviews warrants for wiretapping without the participation of any lawyer representing the targets. There was a lot of debate in the British enlightenment, lasting into the nineteenth century, about whether it was ethical and reasonable to forbid those accused of high crimes such as treason from being represented by counsel. But nobody ever hit on the idea of not having them appear in court at all. A court which hears only a lawyer for the government, then issues a warrant for wiretapping, is a puppet or shadow court of a kind even the Soviets never thought of. It would have been easy enough to fake some sincerity by at least having a public advocate whose job was to argue against every warrant--even the Vatican had a “devil’s advocate” opposing the canonization of every saint. This might actually have introduced some justice into the system because a certain number of these captive advocates historically have taken their job seriously, like some of the appointed military counsel at Guantanamo. There has been some discussion recently of introducing this kind of advocacy into the system.

The St. Marks Bookstore

When I was a teenager in the late ‘60’s, the city was dotted with used bookstores, and I still have many of the inexpensive books I bought in them, including a complete Plato, and some volumes of Nietzsche. These were friendly, cluttered stores where you could browse for hours, and the virtue of them was not only that you found amazing old books for a dollar or two, but that you encountered books you had never thought of, that nobody had ever recommended to you personally or cited in the New York Review of Books, but which enrichened your life immeasurably. I have a few examples on my shelf right now: Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, and John Howard Lawson’s The Hidden Heritage, which had me at hello with the remarkable statement in the preface that he is finishing it in a hurry because the House UnAmerican Activities Committee is sending him to prison for contempt.

You can find everything you want on Amazon or Bookfinder; this is one way things have rationalized. I used to look for specific books for years before finding them, though even before the Internet there were services where I did occasionally order certain greatly desired books at a premium. But nothing online replicates the experience of spotting a black or red hardcover on an upper shelf of which you cannot even read the title, pulling it down to get a look and discovering it is something you didn’t even know existed, so couldn’t know you badly needed until you found it waiting for you on that shelf, modestly projecting its “Modern Library” aura and waiting for the right reader to come along.

I was recently running an errand in the East Village and came back on St. Marks’ Place looking for the bookstore, where I had found several out of print books of this kind which proved useful in my research for some work I am doing on the history of free speech. But it was no longer there: it had moved around the corner onto Third Avenue, shedding all the used books, and become another shiny anonymous lefty eggheaded new independent bookstore, of which we still have a few. The worst part was that there wasn’t even enough inventory; the store had some bare shelves, not a good sign. The economic forces in this town, the same ones which drove the man I mentioned a few paragraphs back to live in his car, have forced out the used bookstores. Soon the Strand will be the last one standing, and I hope they at least will stay awhile, fighting the bland entropy of proliferating Starbucks, Duane Reades and Chipotles that now substitute for the soul of this town.