Tuesday, December 26, 2006

George Faludy's Happy Days in Hell

This is a review (5000 words or so!) to be submitted to The Blanket, the republican on-line West Belfast site's project, so it was written assuming it might meet some readers less than sympathetic. Strange how so many on the left insist still on forgiving the Reds when they never will the Nazis when both killed millions in the name of a perverse ideal. As Mark Rudd said in the documentary on The Weather Underground Layne and I watched last night: when you come to regard ordinary human life as disposable, expendable in the name of the cause, you have reached the same immoral level as the Stalins, Hitlers, Pol Pots, and suicide bombers have. When the Weathermen took their campaign to the streets and treated all Americans as if they were the enemy-- at least the white ones-- and justified their radical grassroots terrorism in the name of protesting state-sponsored terrorism in Vietnam, they lost the ethical defense that perhaps a few generous souls might have still granted them. If more people read such accounts as Faludy's, perhaps fewer among us would be so naive.

George Faludy died at 95 on the first of last September. He wrote a classic, now nearly forgotten in the West, account of his early life under first fascist and then communist tyranny, My Happy Days in Hell. Since childhood, when I had met at my parish families and clergy who– alongside 200,000 of their ten million compatriots– had fled the defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, my imagination was taken by their dramatic escapes. Faludy fled with them, but he had earlier chosen in 1946 to return to his native land from American refuge. He never shirked a challenge.

In his memoir, he notes that he, like his professorial father, preferred to live outside of Hungary even as he longed for his homeland. Too restrictive for dreamers and idealists, Hungary, with its extraordinarily complicated language and its ethnic distinction from the Slavic and Germanic peoples who surround its great plains, after WWI lost half of its homeland. Isolated in the center of Europe by terrain and language, it sits between East and West, an Asian people who have endured over a millennium at the continental center. This nation commanded Faludy’s loyalty yet chafed his cosmopolitan intellect and inquisitive nature. He faced fourteen years in prison for an anti-Hitler poem. He had fled, after its fascist Horthy regime had drafted him in November 1938 into its army, allied with the Nazis. In his late twenties, Faludy was already an acclaimed poet, best known for his translations of another jailbird rascal, the medieval balladeer François Villon.

His obituary revealed his later life to be as exciting as the period, from 1938 to 1953, described in Happy Days. More about this afterlife later. Reminding myself I had always meant to read his autobiography, I hunted down a dog-eared and spine-slanted library copy, the only one in my vast city. The large volume, over 450 small-type pages, showed, at least a few decades ago after its English-language translation (rare from Hungarian in that Kathleen Szasz’s 1962 rendering counters sinuously the often jarring transfer from this native language into English; many books from Hungarian flop about like dying fish in their clumsy anglicised gasps), that many readers had preceded me in their journey through the fifteen years that Faludy narrates. It took me a few weeks on and off to finish it. Now, I only wish its sequel published in 2000 was translated.

For readers of The Blanket, Faludy’s experiences remind us of how most of us choose to survive oppression. Perhaps flight lacks the glamour of rebellion, but those who flee live to fight on another day, as the cliché goes. Chapter one opens as he recalls a dinner party given for a British MP in the wake of Munich and appeasement. Faced with the fact that the West would let Hitler do as he pleased, the guests in Budapest lamented their fate. One Catholic poet fervently vows that he will stand up to the Nazis, ‘even if he had to give his life for Christianity, for social justice and for Hungary’s independence.’ (11) The MP responds sadly that when Hitler marched in, their heroic poses would accomplish nothing but their arrests and hangings– in secret so as to discourage martyrs. He urges them all to flee. ‘After the war, however, we could return and serve the ideals for which, today, we would sacrifice ourselves in vain.’ (12) The folks at the party, mostly young, ignore the MP; they merely vent and rant against Chamberlain. Two months later, all but the Catholic poet had left Hungary, many for America or England.

Supporting his poetic practice with his work as a left-wing journalist, Faludy provoked the fascist Arrow Cross. Briefly jailed, refusing to continue to fight in its militia, Faludy escapes to France, where however the Germans conquer and divide that country next. Trapped in Marseilles, he and thousands of refugees seek asylum.He boards a ship. But, spooked, he then disembarks with his first wife. The next day, that ship sinks, blown up by a mine. Along with a colourfully drawn assortment of flim-flam men and women of easy virtue. Faludy seeks asylum in North Africa. The vagaries of diplomatic sovereignty in French and Spanish territories there manage to, as will be dramatised in the film Casablanca a couple of years later, keep Faludy sporadically secure. His limbo allows him excursions amidst the Berber tribesmen. He describes their customs, brutality, and grace through elegantly rendered vignettes. His powers of recall, which appear unbelievable at this stage of his tale-telling, gain credence later when he tells us how in prison he memorised poems he created in his mind– his only way of recording them– and recalled them daily. Incrementally, he added to his retentive storehouse with verse, anecdote, and witness for years on end. His ability to retreat into his intellectual and artistic mnemonics allowed him the chance to endure within himself. There he cultivated the fortitude to survive the slow starvation, of a less than a thousand calories a day, inflicted upon him and his fellow prisoners left in the open, under communist hard labour, sixteen or even twenty hours a day.

Years prior to this fate, he does keep notebooks. Space here prevents me from sharing details of this African stint, but his impromptu vacations liberate him from his European confinement, erotically, ideologically, and practically. Through the intervention of FDR from abroad and briberies in Morocco, he reaches America. His time there is only summarised, perhaps for security reasons I suspect, but he serves in the U.S. Army and as secretary-general of the Free Hungary Movement. Yet the dazzling States cannot quench his longing to return to Hungary.

Faludy, although no idealist, cannot rest abroad while his motherland seeks guidance. He offers his social-democratic convictions to help heal his nation. A ‘radical liberalist,’ to borrow a term translated from an Hungarian entry about him, Faludy suspects the broad front that the Hungarian Communists have constructed to hide behind. Before they seized total control, communists had avoided even calling themselves ‘socialists’; they allowed Faludy’s social-democrats the term, the better to mask the ‘salami tactics’ of party leader Rákosi, who kept in touch by direct radio contact, hidden in his villa, with Stalin himself. ‘Stalin’s best pupil’, Rákosi boasted he sliced off his opponents like chunks of salami. (In November 1945 free voting, a bourgeois-peasant Smallholder majority won 57%, social-democrats 17.4%, and communists 17%.) The Party favours returned exiles from Moscow; Hungarian cadres had fled well before Hitler’s forces had seized direct control of Hungary away from the outflanked Horthy regime in 1944. Newly promoted functionaries, often within the police and petty bureaucracy, carry familiar faces. Many had served Horthy and the Arrow Cross. They changed allegiances at the collapse of fascist-Nazi terror. Repeatedly, prisoners recognise a guard or kapo who had beaten them a few years earlier. The tormenter’s uniform changed, not the man inside the tunic and beneath the steel helmet.

The sections that follow, about halfway through Faludy’s book, energise such testimony. While extensive first-person attestation exists from those who have survived gulags and prisons,1 we have to date less information on how those on the outside managed to persist amidst purges, show-trials and betrayals. The compromises required for mundane survival under totalitarian regimes lack the drama inherent within experiences of the incarcerated. Although this portion of his autobiography comprises only a small fraction, Faludy unmasks the evasions and lies that those under totalitarianism manufacture under the People’s Democratic Republic that silences democratic opposition in the name of the dictatorship of the proleteriat by May 1949.

Emigrating into this repressive society, Faludy wryly summarises its necessity for the daily lie. Viewing a portrait of Stalin, black-haired at 65, Faludy thinks to himself: ‘this is socialist realism.’ As his colleagues at the leftist newspaper disappear into the maw of the AVO, the secret police, Faludy and his Bolshevik-loving girlfriend find themselves at odds with each other and with their ability to act in any way approaching truth. The shiny black beetles, the AVO cars, follow them about, a Kafkaesque touch, and one reminding us that when Orwell wrote 1984 at this same time, he merely reversed the last two digits; the time of Big Brother, he assured us, was now. Faludy refuses to prostitute his talents to edit an anthology of anti-clerical writings for the regime. His old friends, including an avuncular comrade in the Party dating back to the Red Terror of the 1919 Béla Kun communist dictatorship that had briefly taken control of Hungary, find themselves made redundant and then eliminated under the hand of those communists who had returned from Moscow after 1945 and who edge out those who had worked in the underground or had fled to the West to work for the party during the fascist years. No loyalty endures for the Party. Here, no one is innocent. Winston Smith would have recognised Budapest in 1948. Without the constant renewal of enemies, class war, and the crushing of artificially concocted dissenters, the Party cannot justify its reign on behalf of the People’s Democracy. The peasants in whose name the intellectuals rule are promoted by those under Moscow’s control. This proletariat is elevated to power, but they cannot run the factories or govern the bureaucrats. Those capable who could have done so, communist or otherwise, have already been purged.

Faludy enters this oppressive atmosphere, Faludy muses, with typical erudition, of the Roman intellectuals who speak out against the corrupt imperial power, who then enjoy with self-conscious attention their leisurely last feast before being compelled to take to their bath and slit their wrists at the Emperor’s behest. Waiting for the inevitable black car, Faludy finds that when in 1950 it comes to spirit him off to AVO headquarters at 60 Andrassy street2, it brings him into– again reminding one of Kafka and Orwell– ironic inner peace and welcome mental liberation.

Classically trained, Faludy takes inspiration in another gadfly imprisoned for his refusal to kow-tow to thugs. Socrates taught him ‘that man can identify himself with the laws of his country and its official moral outlook only if the daimon inhabiting him approves’. (296) Faludy realises that his girlfriend, Suzy, and those who await the coming of the Marxist messiah have grown up ignorant of Christian ethics or a liberal-arts education. The ersatz religion of Marxist-Leninism has bestowed upon these faithful a perfect secular substitute:

[S]eminars to take the place of religious education and party meetings to take place of mass, the rigorous fasts of the five-year plan-loan and the shortage of food to take the place of Lent, demonstration instead of procession, public self-criticism instead of confession, and instead of Abraham’s bosom the promise of an earthly paradise, the constantly retreating mirage of which was painted on the horizon before the ragged armies marching across the desert. (296)

Yet, Faludy continues, the church is an ‘eternal antithesis of the party,’ bound to disappoint the believer who ‘unconsciously seeks the church in the party’. Kant’s categorical imperative drives Faludy towards the secular, existential form of morality that sustains him. He is not a believer per se, but a humanist. He must act towards others in the same way that he would want others to act towards him if the roles were reversed and the rules were universalised. The Socratic daimon must reject the sureties of the church and state; ‘the more loyally the faithful serve the ideals of communism, in fact, the more inevitably do those ideals afflict them with inner conflict and nervous disorder’. (297) That longtime friend and Béla Kun-era communist activist is imprisoned in a cell near him; he is driven insane and just before his jaw is shattered by a truncheon, he shouts out in one last desperate attempt to win freedom– again echoes of Winston Smith– that he loves Stalin. This is a statement so forced that not even his fellow prisoners, or their guards, bother mouthing it. With his last utterance before madness takes over and atrocity silences his voice forever, he still tries to convince his torturers that he is innocent. Faludy hears him. Any attempt to change the minds of his AVO interrogators is futile. He gives in eventually, after the customary months of mind-games, threats, and beatings. Faludy signs the ridiculous trumped-up charges that he’s a Titoist-Yank spy. If not, Suzy and his mother would have been brought in to the cell next to him; he would never see them again, of course, but he would hear their screams.

Faludy reflects upon so many faithful Bolsheviks he had known on the outside. After months of desperate attempts to argue their innocence to their jailers, who knew of their innocence, all of these Party faithful had capitulated. Two months of torture silenced them. Faludy justifies his own decision to sign the farcical allegations of his espionage for the capitalists (his stint in the U.S. damning him prima facie) with the fact that his acquiescence will save him from, under further torture, accidently revealing the names of other innocents who in turn will be dragged in by the black cars to this same cellar. Faludy had been jailed in part due to the diary kept by a harmless, rather simple-minded, devotedly Bolshevik acquaintance with an unrequited crush on Faludy; she could not stop naming names and imagining plots up to the night of her own arrest.

The hypocrisy of the People’s Republic: this Faludy damns. He understands that his stalwart communist friend thought that after a polite chat the AVO would confess their error and let him go, with apologies. Another prisoner, arrested in mix-up with another of the same name, is tortured for months. The error acknowledged, the innocent man, nevertheless, cannot be released. The State would be caught admitting its mistake. The condition of the prisoner would prove ineradicable evidence of the State’s cruelty against the guiltless. Instead, he was told, for the greater good of the People’s Democracy he must remain incarcerated.

This topsy-turvy logic inspires Faludy with this analogy. ‘But what happens to a believer who discovers in prison that the priests of his church are cynics, his inquisitors heretics, his executioners pagans? He is faced with an appalling alternative: either he relinquishes his faith, or he sacrifices his sanity. Obviously the majority will defend themselves against going mad and will betray the faith that has betrayed them, so that the false accusation of heresy finally becomes true; not because the believer accepts the accusations brought against him as true, but because he discovers that his accusers know it to be false.’ (287) Truly an Orwellian Room 101. The forced confession of his friend, in turn, goads his interrogators further in forcing a confession out of Faludy, implicated naturally in the desperate ravings of a doomed man, a true believer, a communist loyal to Stalin and his henchman Rákosi until his last breath. An excerpt from Faludy’s ‘Ode for Stalin on his 70th Birthday’: ‘Your heroes you have hanged upon the gallows / or pistoled in their prisons in disgrace; / you’ve spit upon the brave, whom courage hallows, / and stamped with muddy jack-boots on their face.’ Images of Ingsoc again, Big Brother’s boot stamping on the face, forever, the symbol of the eternally paranoid regime.

Sentenced to death one afternoon, Faludy discovers the next morning that since ‘as it is prescribed by Soviet etiquette’ that his arms were not broken before he is led to the gallows, that he will be spared by a twenty-five year sentence. Why? “‘Do you know why you have been brought in here?’” he is asked. Faludy shrugs. The captain explains: ‘It doesn’t matter, he continued tolerantly. “It’s enough if we know”.’ (275)

The rest of the book details his two jailings, amidst social-democrat and communist comrades, and then at a mountain camp for 1,300 intellectuals. After a train ride that more than one of his fellow prisoners recalls repeats what they had experienced at Auschwitz and Dachau five years earlier, they find themselves cargo dumped out under the guns of the AVO– many of whom had worn other insignia when they served the Gestapo on behalf of the Arrow Cross. Thousands of prisoners are condemned to deforest a primeval hillside. They build a quarry for an ill-conceived public-works project that stands for so many idiocies that destroyed the ecology of Central and Eastern Europe in the name of technological advancement and the triumph of the mechanical gods of materialism. However, anarchism among the intellectuals spreads soundlessly, and the labour soon undermines, literally, like the Bridge over the River Kwai, the foolish edifice.

If you have read Anne Appelbaum’s history of the gulags, or accounts from Russian survivors, the tales that Faludy tells will prove depressingly familiar. What makes the final two hundred pages engrossing and compulsively readable– more than what has preceded them even– is the wealth of detail Faludy offers, given his proven skills of memory. He can be free in prison. Here at last, confined in this microcosmic communist dictatorship, he can think without fear of punishment. He, already convicted, now enjoys ‘happy days in hell’. He will sustain his beaten and starving body through mental energy and soothing daydreams. Facing inexorable starvation by slow degrees over the next three years– chronology understandably vague much of the time as they are cut off from the outside world– he and his fellow inmates conspire against tyranny ingeniously and relentlessly. Fittingly, a collection of his poems would later be titled ‘Learn This Poem by Heart’, a task enjoined by Faludy upon his fellow inmates to ensure that his poems could perhaps survive his own death in prison.

Here is an example composed from this time in a poem published in 1983.

Learn by heart this poem of mine,
Books only last a little time,
And this one will be borrowed, scarred,
Burned by Hungarian border guards,
Lost by the library, broken-backed,
Its paper dried up, crisped and cracked,
Worm-eaten, crumbling into dust,
Or slowly brown and self-combust,
When climbing Fahrenheit has got
To 451, for that's how hot
it will be when your town burns down.
Learn by heart this poem of mine

Doomed men themselves ‘worm-eaten, crumbling into dust’ they were ordered to build, but they determined to doom the quarry. Faludy constructs another analogy. The forced-labour camp represents the triumph of communism. Talents from these intelligent men wither. Violence rules. Sensible production that would truly help the People’s Democracy in the name of war-weakened men and women desperate for better working conditions and tangible goods of value: irrelevant. Only work that will weaken, torment, and mentally degrade these prisoners is commanded. Conditioning to communist ideals happens with the mere offer of a handful of beans. This is more practical and realistic. ‘Outside they still tolerate family ties and separate apartments and permit a man to have two suits of clothes.’ Inside the camp, no need for newspapers, books, watches, or luxuries that detract from the common good. Not even rumours can be shared. As with Goldstein and O’Brien from Orwell’s dystopia, ‘even subversive action has become a state monopoly’. (429) The iron curtain shrinks. Barbed wire fences suffice. Inside prison, a perfect communist utopia: no culture allowed, no science applied, no propaganda needed. Outside, only with the global victory of communism will equality, utter reduction to bare essentials, arrive.

Furthermore, Faludy elaborates to his fellow inmates, this psychological advancement towards the final stage of communism proceeds. Inside the camp, an ideal has been reached. Power controls the incarcerated– by violence, cunning, threats, and above all a constant scrutiny by informers. ‘But at the same time they have taught us to think. Their moral effect is like nitric acid separating the gold from the filth. Because of it scoundrels become even worse scoundrels, rotten to the core, but the gold of honour remains unchanged, or rather, receives an added sheen.’ Inside prison, Faludy encourages his fellow inmates by education– recalling Long Kesh I might add and so many other ‘Universities of Freedom’ in which humans must rely upon only recall in the censorship of external media and the reduction of social exchange– so prisoners support each other by the tales they tell, the dreams they enter, and the determination they create to survive.

Near the moment of liberation, six months after Stalin’s death and in the wake of the escape of one prisoner to the West who tells Radio Free Europe about the secret camp, Faludy’s condition reminds me of the proverb that ‘a longtime prisoner grows to love his cell’. He fears losing his intellectual freedom. Inside the prison he could be brave and honest; outside, he would have to again withdraw within himself if only to protect his family. Inside jail, he committed his reminiscences to memory; outside, when he wrote them down, his flat could be searched; ‘it would be impossible to put down my experiences on paper and my unwritten memories would weigh on me like the fear of a new arrest’. (465) (By the way, more than once Faludy hears of those released from prison only to be rearrested by the AVO on other trumped-up charges the moment they walk free.) Inside, he has forged mental refinement and philosophical ornament. Outside, he fears the people’s democracy which has stupified and desensitised its citizens.

‘Formerly, in the people’s democracy, and here in prison I had always felt like a researcher who had renounced for a certain time the pleasures of life and had descended in a steel globe to the bottom of the sea to observe the life of the deep-water monsters, who would one day report his scientific experiences objectively and exactly, though without concealing his horror of them.’ Facing his release, he feels as if the bathyscope has broken away from its anchoring chains and will never be lifted up again from the ocean depths. ‘I would have enough air and food to last me until I died but I should never have the opportunity to report my findings. I should have to live in the globe until I died, observing the polyps, sharks and algae about which I knew everything there was to know, until I went mad with boredom and disgust’. He had thought in prison that he would redeem himself, whether he emerged alive or was dumped into the lime-pit which had been prepared for all the inmates, once their quarrying had ended. ‘But now I would have to exist, neither dead nor alive, in an alien world.’

A few pages later, his tale ends as Faludy trudges out of the camp. His obituary revealed that his life continued, however, along labyrinthine paths. Curiously, he never identifies himself as Jewish in his book; he fled in 1938, the obituary explains, in part due to this reason. A poem admits only this much: 'My aunt cut her neck with a razor blade. The rest died in the war in gas chambers. My sister floats upon the icy Danube.' She had been shot and thrown in the river, still alive, by the Arrow Cross. In 1956 Faludy was a delegate from the Writers’ Conferences to the workers’ councils who controlled the rebellion.3 Another exile followed. France, Algeria, Britain, Italy: he lived many places. He taught in the 1960s and 70s at Columbia and in Toronto. A Nobel nominee, he resided two decades in Canada until 1989 allowed him to return to a free Hungary.

These are the mundane facts. Looking up more about Faludy in Wikipedia, a few more surprises emerged. Namely, after his second wife, and former girlfriend, Suzy, died in the 60s. ‘In 1963 Eric Johnson (26), a US ballet dancer and later a renowned poet in contemporary Latin poetry, read the novel[4] My Happy Days in Hell, which captivated him, and he decided to seek Faludy in Hungary. He started to learn Hungarian and found Faludy three years later in Malta. He became his secretary, driver, translator, co-author and partner for the next 36 years. In 2002, Faludy married a 26 year old poet, Fanny Kovács. Johnson left for Kathmandu, Nepal, and died there in February 2004, at the age of 66. Faludy published poems written jointly with his wife.’

Another Wikipedian has amended this: ‘Eric Johnson drove a motor vehicle only once in his life. That was a very ill-fated adventure in Korea. He did not drive George Faludy anywhere in their 37 years of association.’ This relationship certainly proved Faludy’s powers over his admirers. He found attraction to a beckoning soul beneath its gendered shell. Hints of this bisexuality surface throughout the memoir, whispered beneath its 1962-era air of discretion. Johnson, who fell in love with Faludy through only his words, travelled in 1964 to Budapest and demanded to be allowed to stay there to learn Hungarian! Three years passed before Johnson would actually meet Faludy face-to-face for the first time. His compatriot George Jonas tells us more about Johnson and Faludy: http://www.georgejonas.com/recent_writing.cfm?id=179

Faludy loved to tease. He appeared, nearly naked, wild grey mane, piercingly dark eyes, and sixty years older than his third wife, with her in the Hungarian edition of Penthouse. An earlier episode may remind Blanket readers about a certain monument once on O’Connell St. After his return in 1946 from America: ‘He was among the unknown vandals [citation needed] who destroyed the statue of Ottokár Prohászka, a Hungarian bishop who is respected by many but who is often considered antisemitic. [1] He only confessed his participation forty years later. He is condemned by Hungarian nationalists for this even to the present days, considering it an extremist attack on the strong Catholic traditions of the country.’ (Wikipedia, footnote and brackets in original citation.)

Faludy remained an iconoclast. He never capitulated to the comfortable subterfuge. When the communists fought for Hungary, he admired their courage; when they attained power, he charged, ‘they were just whores’. In a 6 June 2006 interview, translated on hvg.hu, he predicted that literature would not survive this century. True to form, he taught us from his classical mentors.‘In the US, people read 35 to 40 per cent fewer books now than 20 years ago. And the numbers continue to fall. Of course, we've seen this before. Around 350 AD, people stopped reading. At the time of Marcus Aurelius, there were 88 libraries in Rome. Under Constantine the Great there was only one. I think we stand before a great crisis, which is consuming literature.’

However, with a renewed interest of Faludy’s works in his native land, he proved that a prophet could be honoured where he was born. He deserves acclaim outside Hungary as well. He reminds us that what’s become a cliché of ‘speaking truth to power’ still expresses a resolution we must follow. I close my essay in the hope that you will now seek out more about this courageous, cantankerous, memorable man— and belie his own dark predictions for the future of literature.

1. See From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States. Paul Hollander, ed. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006. Table of Contents: http://www.isi.org/books/content/384toc.pdf Hollander also fled Hungary in 1956. The fact that a conservative think-tank publishes this anthology does not diminish the importance that such an anthology, the first of its kind, establishes in helping to redress the imbalance between vast scholarship that investigates Nazi-era accounts but which, until the opening of Soviet archives and declassification of Cold War files, has been largely lacking on the other side of the century’s blackened totalitarian ledger.

2. 60 Andrassy street is now the Museum of Terror, a memorial in the building that housed first the Nazi- fascist torturers and then the AVO secret police’s dungeons. When I visited Budapest in 2003, my itinerary did not allow me a chance to visit the museum, but my hosts informed me that the ‘socialist’ politicians then in power were lobbying to close the museum. It had only been open a short time, but already as in many formerly totalitarian nations, the ghosts it raised of a morally corrupted past of compromise, pain, and betrayal have haunted the guilty still living.

3. An acclaimed account has just been published for the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising. Victor Sebestyen. Twelve Days. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson; New York: Pantheon, 2006.

4. The contributors in Wikipedia label this an ‘autobiographical novel’. Comparing Irish WWII counterparts Black List Section H, Francis Stuart, and Nine Rivers to Jordan, Denis Johnston, perhaps this is an appropriate label. A sequel, After My Days in Hell, appeared, to date only in Hungarian, in 2000. The Kossuth Prize, the leading literary award in Hungary, was awarded him in 1994. He was fêted there, where he continued to play the Socratic gadfly to the new regime.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

My "Wife-Cancelling" Headphones

This is an Amazon review, but apropos considering my dear spouse's recent blogs. Actually, I have only worn the Radio Shack cans in her presence or next to her, for reasons of safety, my duty as a householder and father to listen for rampaging sons and dogs, and for future continuation of my state of lawful matrimony. I edit this a day later after in her presence dared to put them on for the space of two-and-a-half songs on my iPod, as the construction commenced again, Sunday morning, and she was snoring. But, up she popped and accused me of deeply insulting her by my mere action. Rover stared at me until I took them off, loyal to his mistress to a fault.

I spent many pleasant hours, to the amazement of my spouse, seeking out what she now calls my "wife-cancelling headphones"! For my commute, I needed to power drivers from a regular-sized iPod. I wanted a pair that I could take with me "on foot" easily and that would fold up neatly. At the $150-and a bit plus price-range [they list for $250, sell for about $165 at their cheapest on Amazon, and I bought an open-box pair for $150 from headphone.com], I expected durable construction as well as sonic fidelity. I had started out with what everyone thinks of: Bose QCs (as mentioned in this week's New Yorker article about what to get people for the holidays-- this gift being suggested along with an eyemask for harried fathers).

Reviews on Head Room, CNet, and Amazon convinced me that Bose QCs were overpriced and undernourished. Perhaps better for frequent flyers, but I needed to cancel sounds on buses and trains: a different challenge. I preferred, or so I thought, on-ear sets, so I looked into Sennsheiser's more affordable noise-cancelling folding on-ear PXC 250s: better, but their plastic headpieces seemed flimsy and prone to cracking, and their external battery cord seemed to get in the way. AKG K81 DJs tempted me at their fair price; they received nearly unanimous acclaim. But for commuting, they seemed too big and bulky, since although half-folding, they are made tough and strong for dj's to monitor music in clubs. (For the $50 range, by the way, AKG's K26 also receive high marks as a vast improvement for IPods if upgrading standard included buds.)

Still, armed with a gift card to offset some of the cost, I looked to the lower weight IEMs and higher range (in price, performance, and db's of noise suppression). The IEM decision fit best my needs; I ride the bus and subway: about three hours total round-trip. Acoustics and physics prove the point. Bose QC's use white noise to "cancel" sounds with others. IEMs isolate more sound at a deeper level of body contact, and so needed lower volume-- this saves aural damage. Also, less volume in the ear means less power drain for the iPod battery.

UE gained the most support from the hundreds of reviews I must have scanned. I purchased a pair (their price on Amazon is about the least expensive retail amount you'll find). Curiously, many vendors charge more for the black than the white model! I being cheap bought the latter, but I am pleased to note that nobody will mistake these for standard Apple buds. The wire is clear, and the color is handsome without being too attention getting: a must for us urban commuters, unfortunately. The actual earpieces do stick out, since IEMs carry more punch than buds. To my surprise the hook over the ears does markedly help in wearing them comfortably-- it was not interfering at all with the eyeglasses behind the ear. Also, this position minimizes the drag of the wire and reduces the IEM transmission of vibrations into the ear as you move or as the wire brushes against clothing or your body. This does take a bit of getting used to, but, as with the insertion of the IEMs, it can be done in a few seconds after the first few times.

For noise-cancelling, the Pros do not shut out all external sounds, nor for the sake of safety would a commuter desire this. But, they reduce it by perhaps 75%-80%. What remains on bus and train is often attributable to the vibrations and rattles that shake as well as produce sound. You cannot get rid of the discomfort as the vehicle hits the bumps in the road or on the track!

They do reproduce (especially "standard" rock) sounds well, although they so far coupled with the iPod have only outperformed my $50 Koss-Radio Shack over-the-ear cans slightly. This may improve with time, as phones need to be broken in, apparently. [Hint: the EQ set for rock reveals much more depth than the bass booster setting that I had previously as my default.] Debate at "head-fi" on-line has raged as to whether "burning" them in over a couple hundred hours to season their drivers is merely the placebo effect or an actual improvement in fidelity. Similarly, I am getting a portable headphone amp (Gary Ali at electric-avenues dot com) that should enrich the sound further on whatever headphones I use with cheaper CD boxes or digital players. Ultimately, what IEMs are at this range, I gather (as opposed to the thousand-dollar customized pairs UE designs), are "musical earplugs."

They shut out the outside, boost what sounds you program and prefer, are lightweight, enjoyable, and while not audiophile-level, fulfill their purpose. They are less expensive than competing models, the fit in the ear is not nearly as traumatic as some reviews have made UE IEMs seem, and the match of form-- plugs-- with function -- players, will never be airtight, offer orchestra-like fidelity, nor will it be able to satisfy those lucky enough to afford higher-level IEMs or phones. But, for commuting, portability, and ratio of cost to performance, they work well.

As my hearing is overly sensitive, and I could/can not ever listen to amplified sound at a rock concert, for example, the lessened volume was crucial for the IEM I chose. This does run at about a third of the iPod volume setting compared to half for other headphones (I did comparisons with a cheap back-of-neck pair and my over-ears on the commute: these by the way both do one thing: they place the music as an additional layer of sound closer to your ear, but no external sounds are mimimized at all. Conventional headphones therefore only distract you by their placement of preferred sounds nearer to your ear. Think of when you talk louder to a neighbor in public so as to drown out somebody else at a nearby table.

What remains a bit of a problem is the cord. Sitting at a desk with a computer, if you are at all tall, plugging in to the computer for playback will nearly reach if not match the limits of the cord's length. These are better used while walking along or holding the iPod. The detachable cord feature also narrowed my choice to UE. At three feet it is perfect for movement while carrying a portable player. However, I have noticed a glitch with the initial starting up of the iPod, during the shift from regular use to the hold button, and the shutting off of one or both sides of the IEMs. But, this may be my own clumsiness or lack of practice. [If not, I will update this comment.]

But, how to wind up the cord into a pocket or case? It tangles constantly, and the need for the permanence of the semi-flexible bends near the ears means the wires cannot be totally compressed as they would be in buds-- or even other IEMs, I suppose. I carry them in an eyeglass case, since this allows less folds and preserves somewhat the twist given to the behind-the-ear beginning of the cords.

I give four rather than five stars for a specific reason. Past reviews led me to believe that a small leather case was also given gratis along with the metallic box. The UE booklet now lists it for $10. What is needed in the metallic box is a winding device; earlier models apparently included this while the one I bought notes, in the booklet, that such a winder is "optional" although it is not listed on the accessory form nor is it explained with which models it would presumably come free. For the price these sell for, I expected a bit more generosity in the "add-ons."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Theodicy, Space & Time, God & the lack of, Headphones

Teaching a curious poem about the immensity of space and how by thinking about the universe we can encompass it within the confines of our little mind/brain, by Emily Dickinson last week, I mused to my students my own recent reading on cosmology. I told them that I had always wondered about how large the universe was, as we know how old it is: 13.7 billion years. Turns out it is between 45 and 70 billion light-years across, which either exhilarates or depresses me. And, it is expanding and will apparently continue to do so, until nothing remains but dead stars and then even space and time will collapse into nothing. The universe and therefore time and space itself began in the Big Bang all at once, everywhere: another concept that is beyond comprehension.
Niall and I talked the other night about the book I am reading that looks superficial, but is actually once you get past the conceit (in the literary meaning) an intelligent meditation by a classmate of Bono and the U2 boys. (I just reviewed it today for Amazon along with Gerard Donovan's new novel Julius Winsor; more of him and the book anon) Their school had only been founded a year before they attended, and was the first secondary one in Dublin to be non-sectarian. So, it tended to attract the nominally Protestant and non-Irish born students; many do not know that 3/4 (at least!) of U2 is from non-Catholic backgrounds and that 3/4 were born outside of Ireland, as was the author.
The author, Neil McCormick, himself had dreams of rock stardom, and he ponders how from the age of fifteen on his classmates somehow had what it took to become successful, the spark that some artists have and most do not-- as he despite years of struggle in the music business could not achieve. He wound up being a rock journalist, on coke, and talking every so often to Bono as the latter became world-famous about their divergent paths. The fact that all these folks are the same age within a year as me (the third book in a row that I have read with an author so near my own birth year) only makes the happenings more intriguing. McCormick, as an atheist, also ponders often how Bono, who Neil knows to be intelligent, can believe in God and Jesus so confidently. He was the first reporter to "out" to the wider music journal readership back around 1980 that 3/4 of U2 are charismatic Christians. The conversations Neil & Bono have (so far at least) fail to convince each other of the other's position, but they do make for a more thoughtful little book than I would have supposed.
This fits into my own musings of late. I wonder how anyone can claim theodicy-- "god + telling" or claiming to know what any force greater than us wants us or requires us or threatens us or impels us to do. If a distant, inexorable, ancient force creates tsunamis and deformed babies and smallpox and comets that annihilate planets, if we manage to escape such calamities, is this merely the luck of our cosmic draw? Not that my questions are new. I suppose all of us must muddle through our small role and never get these queries solved.
Where our little concerns fit in seems pretty inconsequential: a picture in today's paper showed one politician in Ecuador praying with hands clasped for the demise of his opponent.
Warning: why I wrote for an hour the following I do not know. It just seemed like a new learning adventure that taught me, at my advanced age, that there is still much to discover.
You do not have to read it, as it is all about headphones.
Speaking of space and time on a diminished scale, I did take the plunge and at last order headphones: IEM's (in-ear monitors) to be specific. The level of investigation may seem ludicrous, but many others among those reviewers pro and amateur that I read had done exhaustive research themselves. and much trial and error. Although I had thought I would not want to put anything in my ears, the advantages of noise isolation (which differ from noise cancellation: the Bose-types generate white noise within the phones to counter outside noise). They do not stop outside noise, but filter out low-- thus the airplane origins and applications-- frequencies while only dulling medium and high ones. Thus, the human voices--especially female ones as many users have noted in my explorations of hundreds of reviews on Amazon, CNet (n.b.: a very good place for electronic ratings by experts as well as real people), and specialty headphone sites-- tend to naggingly persist. The noise-cancellers must also create a suction on your ears so as to generate a space in which the good music and bad external noises can battle it out that most people get used to but some hate. Apparently the majority assert that compared to other phones, the Bose are about 60-70% overpriced and lack sonic fidelity when it comes to the music for the price charged. They also are flimsier than I would have expected, I guess to save in weight. The Bose firm apparently is quite nice to deal with, but their products enjoy more of a snob than audiophile appeal (did you know they hand out Bose for in-flight comfort to the favored few?). I read about their lower-priced but nearly equal in quality competitors and nearly went for the best one, but that brand-- once made in Ireland but now in China, see?-- had persistent reports of breakage and lack of durability. So, I then went to expert 'phone sites to find out about others.
The use of a low-power iPod means that you need to match what it can drive out in power to the speakers that it can realistically run well, as it lacks the clout of a real stereo obviously. Many good 'phones are better driven with stereos than puny little players, and these latter can reveal the lack of fidelity of iPods since they reproduce the musical sounds so much better! I read more and a cult brand that lots of folks like (in case you at work ever need inexpensive--that is, under $75 but above $40-- but dj-quality sets for monitoring) is AKG.
Still, the lack of sound suppression even from the best over-the-ear sets seemed a problem, as my purpose was to use them to not only listen to music but shut out noise on bus & subway. The AKGs would work well, it seemed, and are ideal for iPods and the like. But I wondered if they would really shut out the city noise. Many on-the-go users of the Bose-type noise-cancelling and/or other IEM isolation sets remarked how their air travel or rattling commute on the ground left them so much more relaxed due to the lack of noise tension that apparently we all resist subconsciously and that wears us out without our realization.
So, trying more to match the capabilities of the iPod's battery power with the drive that it takes to push a decent set of 'phones to create sound worth hearing, the needs for small sets that would not be bulky but could hold up to daily use, and that gave the listener --concept of the day: ohms of impedance-- the best sounding re-creation of sound that the iPod system with all its limitations could reproduce, I figured out another solution.
A couple of IEMers had before suffered poor hearing. It sounds contradictory that they would then stick something in their ears. But, the better the fit, they explained, the less the volume needed to hear the music, for the phones are no longer cranked up to drown out the outside sounds. Therefore, the lower volume saves the ears, reduces battery consumption, and prevents fatigue or damage. The sounds diminish much more when the ear itself is sealed rather than a space around the ear, so more details can be heard at a less distorted level.
So, the IEMs emerged as a better alternative for commuting. Small, light (half an ounce!), and the better ones had a variety of sized pads of foam and rubber to mix and match to get the best fit seal for the ear. This is the standard bud problem: one size hurts many ears. I calculated how much the Bose were, and figured I could cut that by half and get very good, if not audiophile, IEM 'phones that far outperformed bigger over-the-ear sets. The reviews, after I had spent a few hours searching about, consistently favored Ultimate Ears. They make on-stage in-ear monitors for musicians and dj's. Until recently, they only made custom-fitted pieces that you needed an audiologist to fit, and these run a thousand bucks. Apparently these plug in to "wetware," your own nervous system, to transmit the sounds and conduct frequencies, so aligned they are with the technology! I can only imagine what that'd be like.
UE was also praised for customer service (as is Bose), and it is instructive to note, as these companies should figure out if they read the customers' posts on Amazon and the techie sites, how the slightest nice or mean comment or action will reverberate much more on the net than word-of-mouth could have ever done for the reputation of imperious or accomodating firms. UE has a two-year warranty. Once I had narrowed my search to a few IEM brands, I looked more at UE. Leo might like to know they have booths at the Vans Warped tours.
On the site of a great Montana vendor and maker of headphone amps (another arcane category for audiophiles upgrading their little iPods and the like to sound more like Bang & Olafsons, apparently), I learned more. Headphone.com has a very helpful site Head Room all about what you stick in or around your ears. I was surprised when I had looked up Bose prices on the web (as the ads do not say). Similarly, the IEMs ran hundreds of bucks, from cheap $5 ones to $1000; as with Bose, quality headphones are made by firms that catered initially to the high-end studio and dj crowds and only lately to the unwashed masses.
Still, as the Bose ran $300-350 depending on the model with no discounts anywhere, and since the majority after hours of my research warned that better sets could be found for 60% cheaper, I took heart. The UE brand I found had nearly everyone (28: 29 on one site; 39: 40 on another) saying better things than worse about them, and they were arguably (techies insisting that you get what you pay for and if you pay $$$ for CDs and iPods than get a quality set to hear them on) a bit cheaper than the audiophilish competition (but not at that Everest of a thousand bucks, which has tempted some UE users to work towards as the personalized grail of all IEMs). Two drivers in each ear-set rather than one, sounds that most users who knew of such heights claimed rivalled sets of $500. The reviews kept picking these as the best in the price range for fidelity, and that they were much easier to put in and take out since they did not sit so far inside the canal. They do stick out more; one reviewer compared them to Lt Uhuru of Star Trek's piece, but this means they also can be better aligned by one's fingers. Apparently pressure does expand as in an earplug, but not as dramatically as the suction of noise-cancelling and/or over-the-ear "supra-aural" ones. Since your body transmits more of the sound rather than a source more distant from your ear, the volume lowers while the nuances increase, as the ear has to strain less to hear the sounds that are transmitted into it. Therefore these IEMs isolate musical or vocal sounds in the ear rather than cancel competing ones from trains, planes, dogs, babies, females, and automobiles that are filtered through headphones along with the music. Many users, being male, note as a side benefit that they can no longer hear their mates. Had to mention this.
Then, I did the price comparisons. Nobody sold them under $175 or so. Too much it seemed. But the jump in performance above $150 or so in devices kept me from going lower. Then, I noticed that Head Room in small print under their reviews had some UE pairs on a separate part of the website that were discounted due to open boxes, etc. They promised that all of the earpads were new, however, and that the warranty applied.
For test purposes so I had comparisons, I took the inexpensive foam ones with me last Friday. They were lacking, of course. Then, the giant Radio Shack headphones perched on me today via bus and train. They did cover my ears boy did they ever. Geeky. Now I know why they are nicknamed by the cognoscenti as ''cans." But others I noticed on trains also wore the big ones, as well as the buds and the smaller in-between "on-the-ear" ones which rest on the ear rather than the supra-aurals that surround it totally: those on-the-ears are the third type of headphone by the way. I was curious how much sound was dampened in public by my behemoths. None really. The music played simply provided an intervening layer, or overlay, on top of the usual vocal and mechanical sounds. This surprised me, as I had figured if your ears were covered, if not totally sealed, that loud noise would truly diminish. But it was akin to when you talk louder to cover up someone talking near you, or playing your radio louder to drown out another's boom-box. I guess, as with cracks under doors or leaks from windowpanes, if a bit of the space is not totally sealed, then it in one manner of physics and sound is as if there is no window or door at all to block the sound, since you in your phones are placing your ears at the equivalent of the crack under the door, listening!
By the time I logged on today when I returned home, none of the 3 black "UE superfi.5 pros" were left but the white one still survived. It was $150. IPod white not my first choice rather than the subtler black, which was consistently $10-15 more from all vendors except Amazon for the identical model strangely. I called Bozeman MT up. Their voice mail said "if you want to talk to an actual human being press zero." Josh-- of course that was his name--still had the pair, and they will be here Fed-exed Friday from Montana.
I had recalled, nearly too late, that Leo had given me an Amex $100 gift card as part of his post-Bar Mitzvah expenses owed me for a plethora of purchases last winter. I remembered that the plastic benefactor accrued a charge of $2/month when it was not used after 12 months of purchase; additionally Amex charges a fee of $8 or so to use it, which they deduct from the total amount! All of this seemed rather greedy, and annoyed me. I figured I had better use what remained pretty soon. So, the phones that list for $250 (and many places sell them for such; the lowest as I said is around $175 on Amazon and at Head Room) after that card I estimate will wind up costing me about $157 with s/h minus the gift card amount of about $90 to come out around $70 for headphones worth around three times as much.
P.S. Why I spent so long on this who knows. I guess it is a record of my ability to get locked into a task, to find out quickly the entire range of knowledge accessible on an unfamiliar subject. Take it as a memorial, a cautionary tale, an obsession, a curio.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The good Jew? Ozick reviews Mamet

I typed an hour's worth of ruminations, lost by a finger's slip. So I will suffice to say that these comments intrigued me, caused me to examine my own hybridity (word du jour for the lit crit crowd and Bob in his "social construction" doctoral studies), and reflect upon the status of religion as shown in the play "Doubt" seen last week by Leo and me at the Ahmanson. A fittingly named venue, after the philanthropist family of Home Savings savings who converted from Judaism to evangelical Christianity. The play's a bit ham-fisted and I wish that Fr. Flynn had been allowed to remain more ambiguous as to his guilt in molesting the off-stage and a bit too righteously abused and African American 1964 first in the Ital-Mick rosters who does not there belong boy, but Cherry Jones' acclaimed performance as the nun sniffing something rotten in the 1964 parish of St. Aloysius does, even if full of scenery- chewing, manages to fill the vast spaces of the too-large theatre full of 1900 kids and a few shepherds of the flock like me. It does offer a memorable justification by the Sister of her mission (from God?): "In the righteous pursuit of wrongdoing, one may step away from God." So argued those crusading against the Tribe, or Cromwell burning Drogheda.

Which I will lead efficiently back to the Ozick on Mamet review from the LA Times last Sunday. Mamet's rare among assimilated Jews in justifying the right of Israel to simply survive. Despite his own two marriages to shiksas, he calls for the perpetuation of the tribe. Eating bacon sandwiches as he once was in an interview I read a decade ago, he insists on the cultural legacy that he defiantly asserts in the face of the goyim. Surely, therefore, representative of the type of Jewish people that we have gotten to know in the past fifteen years in our markedly secular shetl on the slopes above a nominally Catholic city.

I guess, being a willed hybrid, I can compare the fate of the next fifty years' worth of Jews ready to define themselves as such with the plight of those speaking Irish. Nobody grows up unthinkingly identifying themselves in our Americanized and anglicized (here lingually, there culturally) society solely as Jewish faithful or Irish-speaker. Now, what of the hasidim, or the gaeilgoiri? Well, both of these are modern reactions to the loss of these traditional signifiers, people who consciously set themselves, a "stiff-necked people" or "fossilized fanatics", against the tide of conformity, homogenization, and elimination. We all, these days, have to choose our faction. More of us--Leo, Niall, and me in our mischling blend and Layne in her own fleischig fashion--must also contend with not wanting to discard one suit once worn by our fathers for a dress that bedecked our mothers, so to speak.

How this wraps back into Nicholas Donin and all those today who, descended from Jews, probably even with all the mitochondrial DNA that genogeographers can rescue, do not know there origins does make for humbling postures. Despite xenophobic gestures from Chosen People who resisted four thousand years of blandishments by temple prostitutes (word of the week thanks to Niall and Leo debating why one of their versions of Gilgamesh labels happy Hurri such and the other keeps her demure if admittedly a party girl) and Republican Gaels who never mixed with the Gall. Why? As we all intermarry and mate and mingle in ways unfathomable by ancestors who in Galway never met perhaps but one or two members of the Jewish persuasion in their lives, and I'm guessing not even that given that no Jews lived in the West that are at least recorded in the admittedly incomplete and now irretrievable data. The symbolic destruction of the British archives of centuries of taxation of the natives and of profits by their "betters" when the Four Courts was bombed at the start of the Irish Civil War, ironically of course post-(partial, there's the rub)independence does make me lament as well as shrug with futility about how much eludes forever even the most determined geneticist when it comes to unearthing the sleeping past and those beneath the earth we all tread but to fall upon.

Donin, where are you now? Which side did you claim on your flea-bitten deathbed, surrounded by halitoxic priests? Any "mental reservation," any pressure to renounce what you had announced-- if not from without, for no rabbi would have been near, but within your soul? Each side, Catholic and Jewish, allows an out at the last moment, two strikes, bottom of the ninth. We all must one day have to swing for the fences, but it is ourselves who will be lifted up, into who knows what bleachers, to land in what hands, to be grasped or fumbled or dropped into the eternal sky.

The good Jew

Cynthia Ozick assesses David Mamet’s call for soul-searching.

By Cynthia Ozick

October 8, 2006

The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews
David Mamet
Nextbook/Schocken: 190 pp., $19.95

In the middle of the 13th century, in the town of La Rochelle in northern France, a Jew named Donin — learned both in scripture and in the homiletic commentaries, debates and morally centered scriptural interpretations that constitute the Talmud — underwent baptism, joined the Franciscans and began to style himself Nicholas. The condition of Jews in this period of church dominance was untenable. To live as a Jew was to live under a continuing death warrant. Crusader pogroms slaughtered 3,000 Jews in Brittany, Pitou and Anjou. Fanatical monks and bishops heaped calumny upon calumny against Jewish populations.

It was in this mercilessly oppressive climate that the new Franciscan Nicholas sought to become chief among the calumniators. In a malicious spew of preposterous fabrication, and in the face of his own knowledge, he asserted that the Talmud insulted Jesus, the Virgin and the church; that it blasphemed against God; that it declared deceiving and killing Christians lawful. As a result of Nicholas' exertions, 24 cartloads of Talmuds were burned in Paris, by papal decree, in 1244. And the Jews of France, defenseless under the heel of a church determined to destroy Jewish life, were found guilty of a dangerous wish to destroy Christianity.

Nicholas Donin's world is not ours; we neither inhabit nor recognize it. Medieval Christianity is not contemporary Christianity, earnestly pledged to familial harmony with Jews. But what of Nicholas himself? Why did he do it, why was he drawn to promulgate the very lies that were certain to threaten the safety of a small and helpless people — his own? At a distance of seven centuries, we can only speculate. Say that he did it out of opportunism, to stand with the powerful against the weak. Or that he did it out of fear, to escape the stigma of inferiority, the inexorable consequence of his Jewish birth. Or out of cowardice, or spite, or obsequiousness, or ingratiation, or self-aggrandizement. Or even (but this is satire) out of a kind of utopian universalism, a yearning for all peoples to be as one, without difference or dissent. Say any or all of these things, but do not say that Nicholas Donin's character — or, as we call it nowadays, his mind-set — is, like the culture that accommodated him, dead.

It is this strangely recurrent mind-set that is David Mamet's salient preoccupation in "The Wicked Son," a loose sequence of reflections on the nature of anti-Semitism and its fractional offshoot: hostile Jewish estrangement. The title refers to the lively liturgy of the Passover Seder table, which, like much Jewish discourse, plays with interrogating itself. One questioner (the "wicked son"), by evading the "we" of fellowship and addressing the gathering as "you people," proves not only that he has departed psychologically from his historic inheritance but, more emphatically, that he intends malice. Though marginal to the majority, he is the most noticed and the noisiest. And in identifying the wicked son of our own time, Mamet — preeminent playwright and filmmaker, Pulitzer Prize winner, showbiz celebrity newly awakened to Jewish faithfulness — turns to an ancient term redolent of communal and especially religious betrayal: apostate.

But in the American experience and generally in the mainly secular West, Jewish flight into conversion is no longer an expedient, or relevant, means of self-erasure; nor was it ever, even for Nicholas Donin, the crux. Harmful estrangement meant self-serving politics then, and, in a different guise (usually touching on the state of Israel), it remains self-serving politics now. In asserting this thesis, Mamet is sometimes blunt and sometimes circuitous, given to dubious analogies. Yet his grit is unfailing, and he stands nearly alone among his colleagues, in theater and Hollywood, who have shown a failure of nerve. Easy enough to slap down the street slurs of Mel Gibson, but it requires a stiffer spine to counter the far more insidious, and pervasive, defamation of the anti-Semitism that calls itself anti-Zionist.

Mamet, though, has even broader (and in some respects lesser) charges. He is explicit in his condemnation of "the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at 'Exodus' but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi'Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris."

The mention of Tu Bi'Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, a post-biblical minor holiday charmingly dubbed "the New Year of the Trees," tips off Mamet's orientation: He is alert to heritage and spiritually conscientious. Still, the current widespread recrudescence of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel scurrilousness is a nervous issue even for the many Jews who are apostates in Mamet's sense — the non-observant secular agnostics who are not synagogue-goers and who are apathetic toward both the minor and major holidays, who are personally unscarred by Holocaust wounds and whose citizenship in a nation founded on democratic institutions is spiritual gratification enough. What causes uneasiness, including among the most religiously indifferent, is not only the daily trumpeting of genocidal intentions by the jihadist leaders of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, the last of which has massacred Jews as far away as Argentina. A wishfully accepted facade — "land for peace" in a merely territorial dispute — now discloses its enduring and deadly marrow: The Jewish nation's "right to exist" is called into question or denied outright, an utterance no sane person would dare to apply even to the life of a dog or a horse.

What has hastened Jewish anxieties are the jihadists' abettors, sympathizers and apologists who are active in more civilized societies, especially the dogmatic "progressive" elites in the press, on the lecture circuit and in the universities. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to pretend to distinguish between open anti-Semitism and ostensibly political movements such as divestment and boycott. That there are Jews prominent in these movements, and indefatigable in identifying with defamatory zealotry, ultimately leads Mamet to his j'accuse.

"The Wicked Son" sets out to plumb the inmost nature of the apostate, particularly through social parallels (and parables) and through anthropology and Freudian psychology, and also, regrettably, through certain eccentric or inappropriate tics of language. The very word "apostate," for instance, tends to cast the argument in a religious mold yet mixes it oddly with the therapeutic. Apostasy, Mamet is persuaded, can actually be cured. How? By diligent ritual observance and devotion to Torah learning, until the apostate finds that "the habit of investigation, of study, of curiosity, has supplanted what he will now be able to recognize was the habit of apostasy." The italics are touching. Does Mamet imagine that sending Noam Chomsky, say, or Norman Finkelstein or Judith Butler or Tony Judt to yeshiva will undo their practiced enmities?

He is also prone to a confusion of terms. An "apikoros," a Greek-derived word defined in the book's glossary (which Mamet apparently neither compiled nor consulted) as "[a] heretic, one who is learned in Judaism but rejects it," is not the same as Mamet's apostate, whom he consistently faults for "knowing nothing of Judaism except the slander of its opponents." But an apikoros is not necessarily a slanderer (Nicholas Donin excepted), and many a skeptic has been seen turning up at Sabbath services, whether for the familiar pleasures of the liturgy or simply out of solidarity.

More perplexing is Mamet's adverting throughout to "the Jewish race," a questionable phrase acceptable perhaps in the 19th century but genetically false and permanently tainted by Nazi racist fabrications. Yet another wayward usage is "tribal," here possibly intended sociologically, nevertheless always smacking of backwardness and denigration. It is hard to know whether these recalcitrant terms were chosen straightforwardly or with a kind of tough in-your-face defiance emblematic of Mamet's gutsiness in addressing his nasty subject. The frequent Freudian lingo — "the trauma of the clan," "resistance is the neurosis," anti-Semitism as sadomasochistic fantasy, and all the rest — is, it seems to me, more the product of stale psychoanalytic fashion than new-minted thought.

But most extraordinary of all is Mamet's strange notion of Judaism as "a secret society, similar in the public imagination to the Rosicrucians." I believe he means this playfully (if perilously: "Secret society" inevitably suggests the fraudulent Protocols), and I hope he also means it ironically; otherwise, he would be overlooking a blazing yet commonplace truth — that nothing on earth is less arcane than Judaism, which, for better or worse, has given birth to two world religions and whose scripture undergirds innumerable literatures and cultures.

Anti-Semitism has often been attributed to any number of widely recognizable ills found in all societies, such as scapegoating, bias against difference, group-versus-group hostility. But Jew-hatred does not take easily to ready-to-hand rational comparisons. It is close to being a metaphysical disorder and exists even where there are no Jews; it has a profound affinity with a belief in demons and other phantasmagoria (an affinity from which the most sensitive, cultivated and sophisticated minds are not always barred). "What is the fear the Jew engenders?" Mamet asks. "Perhaps it is caused by his historical, absolute, terrifying certainty that there is a God." Here is a conjecture wholly off the mark. The most ferocious anti-Semites and Jew-killers alive today are the jihadists who affirm God with, in fact, a terrifying certainty. And again: "The cure for the Jew is neither assimilation nor conversion, but religion." Nazi Germany built a national identity on an anti-Semitism that incinerated, without distinction, the assimilated, the converted, the believing and the unbelieving, and Daniel Pearl was not beheaded because he was an American stand-in for Western globalization. The anti-Semite is no "normal" bigot. This is why any attempt at finding analogies to anti-Semitism in this or that historical experience or pariah status or sexual disturbance or childhood trauma or political affront has no logical force. Human histories, even horrendous ones, are not interchangeable.

Yet Mamet diligently looks for parallels and origins, frequently inapplicable and at times grotesque — "the unresolved race memory of slavery"; "the child's need for security and for powerful and moral parents"; advocates of Francis Bacon as the real Shakespeare; gays, veterans and the disabled; the "high school car wash"; "[t]he confederation of the shamefaced," including members of Reform synagogues and amateur writing groups; and more. That Mamet supposes these scattershot disparities to be analogous to, or suggestive of, anti-Semitism is both confounding and dismaying.

"The Wicked Son" is a weakly argued work in the service of a pair of powerful indictments. The first points to an intractability: the persistence of anti-Semitism from generation to generation, a kind of cross-gender mental hemophilia endemic to the brain that carries and transmits it. The second charge is lodged against anti-Semitism's Jewish accomplices, nowadays noisome with peace-and-justice sloganeering and often mistakenly accused of self-hate. But the craven motives that spur Mamet's inauspiciously named "race treason" are no different from Nicholas Donin's 13th century opportunism. All are equally rooted in self-promoting callousness, servile ingratiation and other stigmata of excessive self-love.

As it happens, two scrupulously documented current books take up these themes far more intelligibly and comprehensively than Mamet, for all the stinging wisdom of his intuition, is able to do. Mamet himself cites "The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege" by Kenneth Levin, a psychiatrist and historian who anatomizes in depth what he terms "Jewish self-reform and self-effacement in conformity with leftist tenets." "The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders," edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor, consists of meticulously supported essays on the pathological careers of leading Jewish antagonists. (For the record, six pages of my own are included in the latter.) These volumes are, for the moment, definitive. But if Mamet's passionate yet sometimes idiosyncratic analyses do not always satisfy, his resoluteness in standing against the defamers and their apologists is as needed as it is rare among his peers.

Monday, October 9, 2006

My Big California Adventure

We celebrated Niall's eleventh birthday; the little hobbit went to Disneyland's southern annex-- my wife insisted that I would not find it as bad as anticipated. Well, the Downtown D-land part that divides the old park from the new stretches from the hotel across what was an immense parking lot and is now a promenade lined with chain stores akin to Universal City Walk. Nothing that exciting, but the cleanliness is quite noticeable when compared with the litter strewn and graffiti-scarred real-life counterparts of the California Adventure's inspirations. Unlike the week before, when I threw up at the gates of the same park necessitating a ride home and unrelenting guilt for ruining Niall's birthday. But, as I observed chipperly on Layne's MySpace blog, at least we saved the $11 parking fee. Whose lack may have barely covered the gas, being stuck on the 5 Northbound a couple of hours on the way home, nearly none of which I recall.

Back to Anaheim. Gay Days '06 in hundreds of red and pink tank-tops and t-shirts among as many more rubicund garments displayed by men of all ages and about three woman as far as I counted. Layne reminded me of Disney's historically early and generous encouragement of the gay community in its own creative and occupational endeavors. I recall her telling me long ago of the coke-fiend guys responsible for animating the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo. The other most common sighting in this habitat were Aussie migrants. I guess it's summer vacation for them; it seemed half of the pinker shades of the Caucasian persuasion we passed were declaiming with twangy brays. I told the kids how strange to think that once Disneyland had a strict dress code for entrance; the part-time punks and determinedly swishy strollers in their respective plumage did show how even the happiest place on earth had to let in those who wished to proclaim their own conforming non-conformity, to present a giddy or sullen demeanor befitting their sartorial choices. I thought of Enid in Ghost World on why she did not want the cool old 50s jalopy to drive: then you'd have to get the clothes, and match everything you did to the car.

We went on the Condor Rides, as if floating above various California beauty spots, nearly free of tract houses except the one over a golf tourney in Palm Springs. A classy ride, although Leo did not like it ending up flying over the Magic Kingdom as fireworks burst. Unfortunately, Tinkerbelle was not splattered on the windscreen of whatever craft soared over this climactic panorama, this Buena Vista.

The weather, not too hot but very sunny and no breeze and therefore an accumulation of exposure that does wear me down after a couple of hours outside unless I am in (missing Santa Cruz) a sylvan glade (is there any other type of glade? dell? lea?), did just that: wear me down. Still, frequent interior escapes and shady respites helped. Poor Niall was tuckered out after perhaps one too many rollercoasters, and lay on the concrete planter's buffer next to me (trying out the IPod I inherited from my generous and/or tech-challenged wife; those ear-buds are impossible to fit into the cavity and I have no idea who on earth has ears shaped so to invite such entry) as we waited for our Fast Pass time to enter the Tower of Terror, a fine re-creation of the Roosevelt Hotel in haunted Hollywood. The TT turned out to be a gravity-defying drop, that let you down just enough for a moment or two of g-force weightlessness in your seat. We even have the picture to prove it--my face looking so long that it makes Jay Leno's look round. Niall pulled himself together, and we all enjoyed the silly ride of a few seconds, so it seemed.

Speaking of round, at the Animation Academy we all took a cartoon quiz that matched our faces, personality preferences, and I suppose sheer randomness to find our appropriate character. They did fit well, Leo being madcap Timon from what in his innocent youth was his favorite flick, The Lion King. Niall found his mate in the dependable clockface Cogsworth in Beauty & the Beast. Layne proved to be Cinderella herself. I on the other hand became the doppelganger for the fearsome misanthrope Shere Khan from Jungle Book. Then, off to ESPN Zone where the Dodgers, down 2-zip in the division playoffs as the wildcard team set against the champion Mets, sought to stay alive. We had to wait an hour or so. Leo and I went to a tiny imitation of a Barnes & Noble simalacrum of an old-tyme indie bookstore. The latte vendors, it being an imitation and not the venerable merchant of tomes, wore a black apron with "Compass: the West's oldest independent bookstore since 1851." Wait: wasn't this the long-departed Hunter's motto? I guess some other indie bought out that indie.

The pickings slim, nowhere to sit inside and read. I bought Leo a latte and he thought that term meant it was cold. I explained that it meant milk in Italian and not a temperature. The chai was boiling hot; he got a cup of ice to put in it, but then the flavor dissolved into a mundane liquid faintly tasting of fake spice. Seeing his interest in a book, a rarity too long, I offered that he could pick out a title for a room of his own. He chose one of the guides to Lost, with my help as the two competing ones, while good, were more spiritually oriented--one by Orson Scott Card, the other on the religious and critical contexts behind the show. They actually made the series sound intellectual. Leo took the one that gave a more chronological account of each episode. Anything to get him to read.

The ESPN Zone set us center floor in front of a massive screen surrounded by eight smaller "feeds"; the game had just begun and already it was 3-0 Mets. Happy to find Fat Tire Amber ale on draft, the Big Daddy 25 ouncer was mine. Repeated, since it was a slow game. The bar food, chicken wings, sliders, and a surprisingly good pile of onion rings, did my regimen of watching my intake no good, but in the spirit of the evening as well as being plain hungry, I even added a rum carrot cake--a fine combo even if I could not finish the last few bites. Angered by the presence of Mets fans behind us and off to the side in the form of a snide young man who ostentatiously clapped and cheered at the enemy's victory, we managed to keep up hopes as the 3-0 became a 4-3, or was it 5-3, lead in the 5th or 6th. But, the Mets soon rallied and the 9-6 score sealed the Blue Crew into a doom of their own hapless making once again. Even our heroic Nomar Garciaparra, hobbling up for one at bat that was very key, failed to pull a Kirk Gibson miracle play with the bases loaded. Niall wept after he ate his dessert. We saw the bitter end upstairs as he pitched (37! 42 mph!) at a sheet in an ersatz batting cage, and Leo indifferent as ever used up Niall's game card on air hockey and some intense folderol.

The evening by then allowed me a so far rare chance to wear my own mighty fine b-day gift, a blue-gold letterman jacket vintage -- so old that it said made in the USA --with John O stitched on the front (almost my name, and the O is the start of the Irish, so) and San Francisco Conservation Corps on the reverse. It had aroused some cutting remarks when I put it on after a Dodger game last summer, but in Angels turf I suppose it was neutral ground. Layne liked her dessert of angel food cake and berry sorbet, Leo is keeping admirably to a non-four foot diet, and Niall, well, we tried our best to comfort the bereft boy who would not get to use his tickets for the playoff game the next day.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear World!

Niall and I were at the Dodger game last night, erev Rosh Hashanah 5767. Tommy Lasorda appeared, on his natal anniversary, and got a cheery wave and huzzahs from the 45,000 of us. But, of course,– being spawn of a film archivist expert in the dangers of litigation, the benefits of public domain, and differing from more generous-devious country-cute (Gretta so disparaged in “The Dead;” cf. Dev’s nickname not to his long face compared to the ‘Spanish onion in the Irish stew’of the “cute hoor,” cute not being necessarily in either case an Irish endearment) me when it comes to self-defined “fair-use”– well, our Niall observed sagely of we 45,000 unwittingly law-abiding revellers, “they can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ since they’d get sued.” Dodgers? Tommy? Us? Still, no one I could hear burst into that iambic quatrain, all the same.

I can attest by observation that Frank McCourt’s wife, being ‘of Jewish origin,’ was not in shul last night but at the park. As were we. Sometimes family trumps even observance. Conviviality deserves its place wherever we can grasp it in this bewildering whirling globe. And, Frank and his wife waved to us– dear Niall in cap of course particularly– as they walked across an empty post-triumphant verdant expanse towards the team bus behind the bleachers (why are they called “pavillions”?); Niall and I had been leaning over the fence 360' back discussing the field’s dimensions as the crowd dispersed. The security guards, at the moment the couple approached, albeit from 50 yards away, shooed us away as if we were perched on a grassy knoll with sniper scopes. A dull game, but we enjoyed the walk to and from the stadium and the fresh evening air.

I had written into my wife’s MySpace a New Year entry but one click of a hurried hand whose manipulator had been summoned to dinner had erased it irrevocably from this Book of Life. So, again my mournful existentialism. Since turning, if a bit later than Dante, this past year into the middle of my life’s way precisely, if I hit 90, I have felt mortality, Big Questions unresolved, the lack of purpose or the hidden reason or the sheer accident of my existence as if nearly constantly. They say when you hit 30, or 40, you’re supposed to, but at 30 I was caught up in the double turmoil of a fresh marriage to begin and a lingering PhD program to finish. 40 I remember by my surprise party at the short-lived Museum of Death in Hollywood, but not any angst, at least no more than the usual heaping spoonfuls ladled into my consciousness before I even remembered. Thus my purgatorial research, my eschatological fascination, my apocalyptic schadenfreude.

Anyway, if you want to read such musings you can pick them with far greater insight up from Camus. I have been meditating, if that’s the word as I loosely apply it, when cutting strawberries at the sink or washing dishes (more since the dishwasher died last week and I ladled out for an hour as if in thimblefuls by the end all the standing water from the bottom of the machine), that scene in Die Grosse Stille when the Carthusian brother’s cutting up the lettuce into the leaves presentable and those discardable. As with nearly all the 2'45" film, the silence magnifies the sound. When viewing this, the cumulative effect of, as Philip Groening sought, time’s passing and its permanence sinks in deeply. I have consciously sought the “be here now” (that Dick Alpert neé Ram Dass sure got the short end of the roach thanks to Tim Leary, although I am only at about 1964 in Richard Greenfield’s Leary bio) when continuing to chop away the fruit and dunk the mug. At least this moment in the day reminds me by my small task of ‘ora et labora,’ the Benedictine injunction of combining prayer into work so, I suppose for monks, they can strive towards their seamless integration into the soul and body permanently, as time passes.

Quite catholic if meant with little “c” along the big. Is it praying? Maybe not as the faithful think it so much as the thoughtful. Not that the two are contradictory: this is one of many manners how “learned” adepts condescend to those without abbreviations after their name. I find as I get older that taking what I can value from a variety of spiritual and intellectual traditions enriches me, however minutely or fleetingly. Pope Benedict mused (before his professorial if perhaps brusque medieval citation of a papal delegate’s critique of a devious Islam that deigns to sway the world by violence rather than by love) recently in his native Bavaria of how in our age that we have amplified our own voices and diminished God’s message. It’s difficult, he mused, and I paraphrase and rephrase, to hear the divine when we clump about the planet as if we own it. Europe, as the nine centuries of Carthusian tradition attest, has a venerable tradition that still calls a few; but what of we many “extramurals”? The way to the Pure Land, to Seventh Heaven, to the Ein Sof, has always been that, as Muhammed envisioned, of the knife-edge we must walk on or slip – at least in his infernal cosmology– into the lake of fire. What use do such metaphors have, however, for those of us who do not reckon such a fate awaits our post-mortem condition?

Most Jews, many Christians (statistically most of all Catholics), and I deduce lots of Muslims such as share my workplace who I see munching away during Ramadan place little if any credence in terrifying injunctions to resist the lures of the secular or suffer unending torment. Secularized Europe, relativistic (no matter what both the left and the right say for varying purposes) America, and in time I suppose the rest of our fellow earthlings all will reach their own entropy. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, David Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and the reflection I read recently by I think Arthur C Clarke all predict a non-theistic endgame. Clarke in a thousand years imagines that if anyone invokes religious belief, they’ll be shunted off to the loony bin. Still, as with the deifications of Mao and Lenin for purportedly deterministic regimes, the people need their illusions. The pressures of materialist consumerism, capitalist capitulation, and rational thinking all press upon billions. Like the Chinese censoring the Net and insisting upon communist fealty or the Islamists who cannot comprehend the existence of a “liberal” Muslim, perhaps for now the campaigns to enforce by threat or punishment a loyalty to a cause that has receded from instead of beckoned towards ourselves will endure. Yet, if the Church could not command fidelity once technology’s appeal, literacy, and the exchange of marketed ideas and goods began to spread among its adherents, how can a billion Muslims or Chinese be expected, in such another revolution of goods and flurry of messages, to remain behind a wall or a border?

A survey taken in America identified today four types of a God. Those in the East tended towards a critical deity: one who disdains our faults but prefers to mark us down silently for demerits rather than catch us by the scruff of our neck. The South leaned under an authoritarian deity who ladled out condemnations and, if more rarely, approval. The Midwest liked a benevolent God who seemed happy when people followed the righteous path. The West preferred a distant deity, who perhaps set it all spinning way back but who now huddled out of sight off-stage to watch our performance. What would the Creator of the Universe, melekh-ha-olam, say from Sinai if he read today’s copy of the Forward? The mailbox opens, the page unfolds, Matisyahu’s playing on his GameBoy; a black rapper embraces Orthodoxy; a man “of Jewish descent” claims that his Bubba Pig’s Café near Branson, MO’s the target of racial and culinary wrath; George Allen Jr, thanks to the Forward’s etymological hunches about Ladino “macaca,” is found to have a Jewish mother who only told her son a month ago the truth; and thanks to Mexican immigrant initiative, a kosher slaughterhouse is found to have hidden 127 lbs. of pot. Such is our Jewish America, 5767.