Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The New York Review of Books, The November 30th Issue (A Work in Progress, Draft III)

I am really exhausted. I worked for several days straight after being attacked by a stomach virus that made it impossible for me to climb the stairs at Grand Central Station a couple of days ago. It felt like I had a tank of helium nestled between my solar plexus and diaphragm. Damn!

Then I went to the Ivory Tower, and let me tell you all, it is a walk through Oz. I missed the bonfire at this Presbyterian institution, all of my fellow coloureds didn't have a stomache for them, but I find beer and frat boys interesting. I never really experienced that world, but it did remind me of Tuebingen in a strange way.

And yesterday I picked up The New York Review of Books (November 30th, vol. LII, no. 19). I wanted to write a whole essay on this distinguished journal and the life it reminds me of, but with the onset of a graduate school application and the other things going on in my life, I don't have time to read the entire thing and write an essay that is tailored to my heart. So, I will write about what I have read so far.

I wonder if the Portuguese word saudade goes for terrible experiences as well as good ones. I think I am fascinated and in love with a struggle I have learned to recognize as part of New York. I know the Gotham Bookmart, Edward Gorey's work, the cultural effects of Balanchine's brand of bulimia, in verse the strange tight rope of the Dance Theater of Harlem, and the bestially antiquated Edwardians that inhabit East Coast liberalism. And there is a part of me that misses that awkwardness. It is interesting; their influence is waning as they wrestle with the passing of Susan Sontag, the Kennedy's Democratic Party, and Saul Bellows literary presence. Reading The New York Review of Books brings back many memories about being outside that community but nestled in it.

The review brings up that terrible symbiotic dysfunctional relationship of white folk and black folk -- that terrible assumption, which turns quickly into a need to help the Negro and my complicity in feigning helplessness. I was always thanked very graciously by the institutes that I roamed, re-shelved, interned at and performed minor tasks of maintenance on many a rainy Sunday afternoon in exchange for a piece of pauper’s bread and a place to sleep.

I look back at the mid to late nineties as part of a longer love affair with New York that never really balanced out correctly. In the mist of dusty Edwardian pre-war buildings was where I found refuge after a little rejection by the hip-hop community in 1994, just before the string of high profile murders started. I found a safe place at a British publishing company and a Caribbean cultural institute by 1997, as many of my writer friends fled to other publications, graduate schools and video hits channels. I was “the one” that found himself in the company of the tweed jacketed and dust bunnies prancing on hard cherry wood floors. So imagine my surprise when I picked up the latest issue of the review to find it emaciated, lighter, of different paper quality and with a much smaller classified ad space than 7 years ago. It was the same reaction I had seeing the new Time Warner Building, it is a sense of Darwinist progress that such real estate ventures bestow on America’s Brazilified reduction of the very rich and the very poor. New Yorkers are expecting to see several more of these palaces dedicated to the societied before the end of the decade.

The New York Review of Books of 2006 is a denatured landscape where not only its landmarks have been re-invented by fewer pagers, but its very components have changed like alchemical algebra. It has turned water into Italian soda – yes, it is a fountain in neoclassical style, but in a Willy Wonka land of intellectual proportions instead of a true reflection of the world we inhabit. It is Old Europe colored funny, not New Europe in shocking realism. Its perspective is ornate and wonderful to read, but its reach is not as curly and wavy as I once thought. It is just stubble unable to grow into a full beard. Europe of everyday use is far different than this little American intellectual miracle.

The two articles I read dealt with two of my favorite subjects, Marie Antoinette and Gore Vidal.

Daniel Mendelsohn's "Lost Versailles" deals with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Its opening is absolutely perfect making me remember why I loved the journal in the first place. I found Daniel Mendelsohn's observations to be pretty good, and he confirmed what I suspected about the movie.

As a pre -pubescent historian, I have wandered far away from Hollywood renditions of the past Can we really know what influence great men and women have had on any of us in two hours? I understand the artistic exercise in rendering the decomposed bodies of our exalted in the cinematic flesh, but to condense true life into plot sequences, or combine real life people into composite characters, always hurts me as a historian, even if I understand that narrative and voice can override such literal interpretations. So, to know that this was a meditation on how Maria Antonia became Marie Antoinette devoid of the complete political and social context outside of Versailles bothers me, but like a teenage girl, I am still dying to see the movie. I am dying because I love this period of history first and foremost (Haitian Revolution and all), and also because Marie Antoinette's biography was something I read in high school. I probably read several versions to satisfy my anima's need for watching a woman imprisoned in am age of decadence and my animus's need to see the guillotine's blade, the heads on spikes and the God anointed stripped to naked human forms.

Mendelsohn pours over Coppala's three films with a fine tooth comb. He lays out the ways of Coppala's lost women and ultimately he gives the good points and the bad points in unequal measure to Marie Antoinette. Coppala seems to focus on showing what life may have really been like for a girl plucked from Vienna to rule on the French throne at a time when all pomp was Parisian and all of Paris had an eye on Versailles. Antonia/Antoinette must master a new language, a court culture that was very different from the Hapsburg's and the quirks and intrigues of a family that was much different than her own. The thing that is not explored in detail is how this woman's very presence was meant to solidify an alliance between France and Austria and how her frivolous nature and lack of political cunning turned against her family.

I will say no more about Mendelsohn's review, but I will say this about the premise of the movie though I have not seen it (I know not a good thing). As a historian I think there is a problem in assuming that just because Marie Antoinette was a 14-year-old Austrian girl figuring out 18th century French politics that somehow her story holds resonance with the 21st century. I am not sure if this is a feminist project of re-imagining, but the leanings of Coppala's project are revisionist none-the-less upon the premise that it must have been extremely difficult for Marie-Antoinette in ways that would have been recognized by us. First that is not true, the idea of a teenager is a 20th century notion, and the ways of European royalty are an extreme experience that made people not owners of their own person but both the embodiment of the state power and subject to all the restraints that the role of governance require. In other words, she was probably expected to do what we would consider very adult things by the age of 14, and the strata she inhabited included re-occuring themes of fratricide and impersonal invasions of private life that are not kin to our world today, even for the most followed rock star.

I think Coppala addresses these issues, but I wonder if her interpretation of Antonia/Antoinette measures up to the past, I know that she wants it to be part of our present. I am probably better off reading Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette from which Coppala gets her rendition of the famous/infamous queen to answer these questions. But in the end, Marie Antoinette was not very bright. Even her tutor used to write her lessons on trace paper so she could print them out on clean sheets of paper to show to her mother the Empress Marie Theresa. Did she possess the most basic intellect to know the social crisises in that moment of history, or to take heed of her mother and brother’s caution? Is this shown in the film? I will have to wait and see, since I have taken on the task of reviewing the film before seeing it. Stay tuned.

Bits of Gore Vidal are expected in every New York Review of Books. He is the great pontiff of American letters who, with age, is moving in what seems like measured steps; or, maybe it is simply my own ex-patriot experience that has cloistered him from my view. It seems as if all of New York literary society is smitten by his eternal good looks, his bisexuality, his adventure, his politics and his pedigree. I love Gore also, but there are times, just as when I read Tennessee Williams, where I realize the very American and peculiarly institutionalized paradigm of race raising its ugly head from Vidal's hallowed skull like a cobra lifting a toupee from the rim of a woven basket, only to settle back into the cranium nestled and docile in its position, but striking out at random unbeknownst to the well mannered speaker. In those circles black folk are something to be commented on, not engaged with in real terms nor taken as part of the whole.

Larry McMurty's introduction smacks of those lofty questions that only those in Vidal's caste can ask. Who cares if you had only one tomb to pick as your constant companion on a desert isle? Vidal's complete opus is McMurtry's obvious pick and from there we are transported to Vidal's latest installment and sequal to style="font-weight: bold;">Palimpsest, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006. In this review we learn of Vidal's great loves, their deaths, and his life now that is spreading out like the fingers of the Mississippi, tracing the ending of real lives and the people who are now memories in our American epoch. The great literary world of the last mid-century is a society that exist no more, today writing is a profession of isolated rites. We will not see that collective picture in real time ever again, there is no Johnny Carson or Dinah Shore to help nurse a neat scotch and tight molars expousing sexual conquests with Jack Kerouac or nights listening to jazz records with friends of Dorothy .

But I am getting too poetic.

There is much less to say about Gore Vidal than the Marie Antoinette project, his mere presence in this journal is enough to summon up the picture of our contemporary court culture. Vidal is a well adorned mascot, beautiful in many ways, sensational in most other, larger than life, charming, astute and half American in his gleaming observation from the class of people that have always looked at America from their summer villa in Capri where the weather and temperament of the locals envelopes their bruised soles and blistered hearts from a spring and summer pounding the pavements of New York.

So, I am seeing this part of New York dying a weird death if not an isolated one. Where literature and the literary world lie in this miasma is beyond me. New York seems more Republican to me than before, as I sit at lunch with my new co-workers and they talk about a world that I do not recognize. No free love. No weed. No dancing with the socialist devil in the clear moonlight. Most of the older New York liberals that I knew who were either young socialist or acolytes to Jackie O.'s Manhattan have died or are displaced in a city where their neighbors are younger and more affluent. Looking back in my “saudade”, these modernist hangers on in this post-post-modern juke joint also seemed in their discussions of the e-book and the role of the Internet in the historical trajectory of the bound word. These off beat Edwardians were running like monks trying to save ancient texts from an imaginary fire in the nineties; however, the true hordes at the gates are white, middle class, from Middle America and hungry for money. The inclusion of other people and world views into their velvety chambers of brass dotted upholstered seats is of minor consequence. Look at this government. Look at this war. Look at this situation. Look at our foreign policy. Look at the administration's cultural illiteracy in decision making.

In the same issues, Max Rodenbeck's piece "How Terrible Is It?" exclaims that the rest of the world was skeptical of our accusations directed to Mesopotamia and its environs, but the American people were not. With that statement we are left with what the New York Review of Books sales itself as, a rarefied course for those on a Eurocentric diet; yet, this menu is as antiquated as brandy soaked duck fetuses in aspic. I am not sure if the point-of-view that is exposed is more a glance and longing for an intellectual tradition to which we as Americans will always feel inadequately matched, linguistically inferior and shall always overtly covet; or, is it another case of “saudade”. The American Empire ruled with an emphatic assurance and a feeling of inheritance to the West because we saved Europe from itself several times over through war and Edwardian aged New York marriages. Are East Coast liberal minds glancing over the pond like a Portuguese countess peering over the boat on her way to Brazil escaping Napoleon's army? Was there a miscalculation on which road the hordes gathered and will it be fatal to a jovial and lively intellectual New York elite?

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