Broad Street in Lower Manhattan

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“The idea that people can then ride in on the subway with a bomb or whatever and come straight up in an elevator is awful to me,” said Claudia Ward, who lives in 15 Broad Street and was among a group of neighbors who denounced the plan at a recent meeting of the local community board. “It’s too easy for someone to slip through. And I just don’t want my family and my neighbors to be the collateral on that.”

-“In New Proposed Subway Elevators, Some See a Terrorism Risk

Let me tell you about the very rich.
They hate their children and live in glass towers.
The simplest pleasures are beyond their meager powers
of imagination; mostly, they like to bitch
about the minor incursions of normal life, the itch
of unsanctioned human contact, the fleeting sour
stench of the breathing millions they’ll rush to shower
off in their marble hangars. A muddy ditch
or a modest home appear as misery
defined; they do fear violence of a certain kind,
not terrorism, but a reborn Terror
without the killing—like, meeting the delivery
boy, or paying cash, or waiting in line.
Mere human contact is their Robespierre.

The Swimming-Pool Screening Room

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking about one of the main criticisms that has crept in under the rapturous—over-rapturous, if you ask me—praise for Luca Guadagnino’s movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, which is that it shyly looks away from all the gay fucking. After all, it’s a famously sexy book. “This novel is hot,” as Stacey D’Erasmo’s book review memorably began. But in retrospect, though I love the novel, it’s studiously euphemistic in many places: compared to all the detailed cocks and “little stoppered farts” of a Hollinghurst novel, say, Call Me often has a rather pre-lib sensibility about the facts and mechanics of gay sex, something more in common with a mid-century author like Mary Renault than with post-seventies gay literature. This isn’t always the case; Aciman occasionally does describe the mechanics of getting fingered in the butt, but many of the book’s sexiest bits are in fact gauzy and lovely rather than rough and raw, even if they do not, as Guadagnino version does, literally pan away from the lovers to the softly rustling trees.

Here, for instance, is the core description of the first time in which Oliver and Elio fuck:

[…] At some point I realized he’d been naked for a long while, though I hadn’t noticed him undress, but there he was, not a part of him that wasn’t touching me. Where had I been? I’d been meaning to ask the tactful health question, but that too seemed to have been answered a while ago, because when I finally did find the courage to ask him, he replied, “I already told you, I’m okay.” “Did I tell you I was okay too?” “Yes.” He smiled. I looked away, because he was staring at me, and I knew I was flushed, and I knew I’d made a face, though I still wanted him to stare at me even if it embarrassed me, and I wanted to keep staring at him too as we settled into our mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing by knees. How far we had come from the afternoon when I’d taken off my underwear and put on his bathing suit and thought this was the closest his body would ever come to mine. Now this. I was on the cusp of something, but I also wanted it to last forever, because I knew there’d be no coming back from this. When it happened, it happened not as I’d dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal. I had an impulse to stop him, and when he noticed, he did ask, but I did not answer, or didn’t know what to answer, and an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me.

Now, I’m going to be very crass and do some translating, because I think it draws into focus just how elliptical this description really is. Oliver and Elio are in bed together. Oliver has already undressed Elio just prior to the excerpted passage. Elio is so overcome in the moment that he doesn’t really realize that Oliver has stripped too, until he does. “[N]ot a part of him that wasn’t touching me.” That’s a dick, surely. Then “the tactful health question.” Another minor criticism of the movie is that it doesn’t talk about HIV/AIDS, though it’s set right at the panicked beginning of the epidemic, but here, in the novel, Elio does ask. The tactful question is probably something along the lines of, “Are you clean?” (A lousy euphemism itself, derogatory-by-insinuation, but people still ask it even in our less panicked, supposedly more enlightened moment.)

After that, a “mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing my knees.” Reader, that’s a sixty-nine if I ever heard one. And then, “it happened” with “a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal.” That is to say, Oliver starts to put his dick in Elio’s ass; it hurts more than Elio expected; Elio hesitates and quails a bit; Oliver senses it and asks if he should stop; Elio doesn’t answer; Oliver doesn’t stop. By the way, between the tactful question and the swift movement to “when it happened,” the strong implication is that they are having bareback sex.

This kind of clinical detail can make for good sex writing (Hollinghurst) and bad sex writing (Bill O’Reilly), so I don’t want to imply any sort of inherent moral or aesthetic value to either its presence or its absence, but I do think that its absence in the text is interesting. The mind races ahead of the exact content of the words and fills in the blanks. Elio’s dreams of this moment have been—with one very notable exception—dreams of submission; he at one point imagines wrapping his legs around Oliver “like a woman.” (I am obliged to say that there’s nothing inherently submissive about the receptive position in sexual intercourse, but that’s very plainly Elio’s sense of the image.) So we read the passage and fill in the details: he is on his back on the bed, and Oliver is on top of him and inside of him.

The film is shier yet; it really does look away with a sort of Hays Code demureness, and that is part of the critique, because earlier in the movie, it somewhat (though really only somewhat) more explicitly shows Elio having sex with a woman. I notice, though, that it isn’t all that different in the book:

There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.

It’s not Penthouse Forum, but it’s not a “mock wrestling position” either.

The actual erotic heart of the novel consists of the pair’s trip to Rome, in which their relationship reaches a pitch of increasingly erotic desperation (including a scene of what I will gingerly call sensual defecation that seemed to confound certain book reviewers) driven by the fact that the trip marks the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy and their therefore inevitable impending separation. The movie elides most of this episode and sets it elsewhere—to me, a much more unusual and questionable choice than replacing anal sex with an image of summer foliage. Nevertheless, I think the criticism of the movie for its delicate treatment of the young men’s first lovemaking is unfair: the movie is truer in spirit to Aciman’s original text than the criticism suggests.

The movie does have other problems than these, though. The script is uneven, and where it draws dialogue directly from the book, it stumbles. “Look, we can’t talk about such things. We really can’t.” What sounds poetic on a page in a context of slowly unspooling Proustian recollection sounds, in the mouth of the game but miscast Arnie Hammer, merely weird, choked out in the husky tones of a Merchant-Ivory flick. (By the way, you do know who wrote the screenplay…) Elio’s father, in the book a caring but also distant and intimidating figure, “the great man,” who does not like to be corrected, is in the movie rendered as a sort of ingenious gnome, skipping and smiling. The physical chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is itself all wrong—nothing about them yearns, and while Chalamet’s final scene is a masterpiece of physical acting, I cannot help but think that casting these two straight boys was finally a mistake. I am not for sexual typecasting, but I wonder if any twenty-something straight guy can really know—and therefore replicate—what it feels like to be a teenage boy in the flush of realizing that a man like you wants you as well: the dread and anticipation it engenders within you, the reckless hope that if you sit near enough your knees may “accidentally” touch. This is what Aciman’s oblique and elusive prose manages, even as it too occasionally looks to the trees: it remembers what it all felt like. The film does not.

Girl, I Want Your Body

Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

We’ll call this the room of love. In this room,
you get to know someone and a spark is struck,
e.g., your research assistant’s down to fuck,
and your marriage, each bitter workday’s-end exhumed
for dinner’s silent paces, then re-entombed,
is done—you haven’t told your wife, but luck
may intervene; she’ll find some other schmuck
to love, right? Sex is the bud that blooms
through every season that does not accrue
to years as age; sex is an intimation
of immortality, for him at least;
why harass when you can simply do
a book together? It stinks of limitation,
a rough but two-backed slouching beast.

 

Star

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One like equals one unpopular
opinion: the movie was not good; the meal
was overpriced, but the Bordeaux blanc, a steal;
the chef was not the sky, crepuscular
and bright at once, the clouds as muscular
as the best dog, the half-moon a wheel
cracked yet rolling; you kiss him, you feel
nothing, although he looks spectacular
in his sandwich; somewhere a cat does nothing at all
and is not photographed; the song you said
was better than Bach was never sung; the earth
is flat in two dimensions; a fieldstone wall
is not a neighbor; oh, heart, you’ve beat and bled
out to be the measure of my worth.

A Few Colossi

Art, Culture, Education, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

We must never, ever take anything down.
Build on top of the built world, accrete
and do not pare; fill every ordered town
with statues of its residents, and choke the streets
with statues of the statues of the statues till they drown
all empty space beneath a solid sheet
of human matter; burst the borders; frown
at the vast wilderness, incomplete
without commemorating plaques
and towers named after long-dead architects
and roads to nowhere and great retaining walls
retaining other walls; let Atlas’ back
break; he can no longer shrug, his neck
has also snapped. We’ll build a statue to his fall.

The Choad to Damascus

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What is a binch? What is it to be
corncobbed? Where is the civil past, when men
in ill-fitting 1960s suits could spend
an hour with Cavett arguing if pee
was stored in the balls? Where is the racist glee
of Midge and Norman? Peace with honor’s end?
What will we do with no norms to defend?
(Can you believe this site is really free?)
The road to Damascus has been wiped away
by a war I hate and desperately support;
every side of everything is wrong
but my own belief beggaring my chance to pray
to the hash-tag idol-god who drinks and snorts
Adderall, rants a Solomonic song.

The Poor Suit of Happiness

Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Science, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

maid

Buy more takeout and hire a maid. Reside
in a mansion and summer in the south of France.
Winter in Aspen. Take the foolish chance
of inheriting every single cent. Slide
giggling through life and take a towering pride
in benefitting from mere circumstance.
Never, ever let the poor advance.
Among your peers, deliberately elide
ability and wealth. Hog the best spots
at the most exclusive schools. Oppose at each
instance any opportunistic ploy
to materially improve the lives of world’s have-nots;
they should’ve been better born; instead they leach
from our locked reserves of unnecessary joy.

He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that owed it, he might have more diseases than he knew for

Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

One of the most telling features of our time is the habit of hailing as geniuses men whose time merely has come. That’s obviously true of our president, but it’s also true of the man many now credit and blame for his rise, the recently departed Roger Ailes. Encomiums to Ailes’s person have been mercifully few. George H.W. Bush called him a friend; fellow serial abuser and loudmouth Bill O’Reilly seems to have viewed him as a sort of beloved uncle, the guy who takes you to the ballgame when your own old man is too hung over to haul himself out of bed; the eminently embarrassing Tina Brown remembered him as a raconteur, indulging the common upper-class error of identifying as Falstaffian that which is simply gross. But even among his sharpest detractors, there’s a current of admiration: that Ailes wasn’t only bad and disgusting; he was, almost cinematically, a villain.

Yes, yes, Fox News ruined grandma. She was so nice when you were little, puttering in the garden and slipping you Werther’s when your mom wasn’t looking; now, in your twenties, you’re appalled to find her locked into the fixed belief that Barack Obama is an agent of Allah, who may well be the devil. Well maybe grandma was always a little mean to folks who weren’t her beloved grandchildren, and you just didn’t know what “colored people” meant, exactly, when you were nine. We can be rightly skeptical of the hypothesis that all the depredations of modern media are the result of the news flowing, dumb as water, into the empty basin of consumer demand without completely letting our, um, our preexisting conditions off the hook. The first major outlets to serve the public appetite for Clinton scandals back in the nineties were venerable outlets like The New York Times; Fox followed them in and turned up the volume. The strains of racism and paranoia that were Ailes’s bread and butter since he cut his teeth in Nixonian politics were already here: the Southern Strategy did not, after all, create the South, and Ailes didn’t create the strategies; he just produced them for TV.

Fox News hasn’t bestowed our terrible politics on us; it’s in the follow car with the camera. What’s given us the current derangement is, ironically, the competent political imago imagined as its opposite, the drip-down technocracy of social stagnation prettily papered over by the pretty lights of new gadgets. It is the abandonment of minority communities to the hucksters of for-profit education; it is the signing over of public utilities to take-over scammers; it is the abandonment of the Midwest to unchecked deindustrialization; it’s the drug war; it’s the rising cost of insurance; it’s the use of the public’s money and property as insurance for the failed bets of the financial industry; it’s trillions of dollars spent on war when we can’t keep bridges out of the rivers; it’s student debt; it’s the economy, stupid.  The governing consensus destroyed democratic politics—it told you that the prospect of future cost made any present program and any future progress irresponsible and impossible. All that was left was gesture, a commedia dell’arte of symbolic typologies: an entertainment. So it wasn’t Clintonian scandals that created Fox News; it was Clintonian politics.

The reason this genealogy is important is because there remains, on what passes for the left in America, a habit of organizing against monsters rather than against the conditions that created them. Ailes can rot, but he isn’t and never was the rot. Fox News is actually dropping in ratings, and it remains to be seen whether it can retain its potency with its stable of stars reduced to its morning Bachelorette cast and the backwards-aging face of the eternally petulant Tucker Carlson, who forever threatens to turn back into a bawling infant before our very eyes. Even if it went off the air tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter one whit. Some other dirty trickster will step into the gap; several are already nipping at Fox’s swollen heels. They’ll never go away unless we wrench politics back to the real concerns of the actually human.

Drinking from the Tap

Culture, Economy, Education, Media, Poetry, Science, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

I don’t stand behind anything. I stand
before, above, upon, athwart, beyond.
Perhaps your mortal speech must correspond
to fixed categories, but please understand
I am not a mortal, I’m a brand,
self-contained and self-defined, a bond
self-issued and self-paid, and a natural blond.
Small men perceive mere truth as reprimand.
But truth is like the cat the fellow put
into the box, at once alive and dead;
simply a glance can change the very nature
of a thing: the truth can’t win a game or foot
a bill. When will you get it through your head:
your eternal truths are merely nomenclature.

When Her Muscles Start Relaxin’

Culture, Education, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, War and Politics

People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War,
if you think about it, why? Could we have not,
like, talked it out, I mean, over a pot
of black coffee? I hear they’ve got this tour
of Antietam, this wonderful field, where actually more
folks were killed and wounded than I thought,
I mean, you can’t imagine, like: a lot.
Couldn’t they settle over nine holes, lowest score?
Or match play? My point is, I don’t think
many of us appreciate how rough
it was to die in mud. The telegraph
was all they had to get the news. One blink
at negotiations? I’d have gotten tough.
Life in the seventeen hundreds! What a laugh!