Monthly Archives: November 2017


The young Goethe (Illustration by Boris Pelcer, from The New Yorker)

Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.

Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:

… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….

How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.

Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?

Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?

The mystical, the magical, the credible, the possible

Have several friends who believe in things unseen, and no doubt there’s something to that — things unseen, after all, must easily outnumber things seen in anyone’s lifetime.

I’m talking here not about Christians or other believers in the world’s great religions, though they certainly could be counted among those who trade in things unseen and unproven. I’m talking rather about those who might flee from such religions, having put away the things of their childhood, as they put away old toys and baubles, and run straight into the arms of very crooked beliefs indeed.

Yesterday my wife Jennifer and I had three lovely, lucky guests over for dinner. Jen outdoes herself, on just about every such occasion, in turning the common objects of the produce and bakery aisles into something uncommonly savory and delightful. She is a masterful cook and never fails to transform, even transubstantiate, the common into the uncommon.

Yesterday she transformed the raw ingredients we’d bought shortly before, at Whole Foods, into this menu:

  1. Prosecco and pistachios
  2. Butternut squash soup with crispy pancetta
  3. Pasta al sugo de pomodoro e funghi secchi, plus artisan bread (pasta with tomatoes and dried mushrooms)
  4. Bibb lettuce wedges with gorgonzola and walnuts
  5. Georgia O’Keefe’s apple pecan cake with rum sauce

And after the first course, we washed everything down with flagons of good pinot noir.

Bread and wine, then, at this gathering of friends. The raw and seen was transformed, by my wife’s lovely, capable hands, into the cooked and seen. An aura, if you want to call it that, of the sacramental (ditto) hung about the table. But then I had to  prick the bubble.

2015 Meiomi Pinot Noir, California, USA (750ml)
One of the bottles of Pinot Noir that we drained at the dinner table. The wine was visible and credible, as in went the fermented grapes and out came happiness.

Two of our guests were a psychologist couple who believe in bioenergetics. I knew they’ve been on this kick for some time, and the husband, let’s call him Thomas, had shown me this “proof” once before of the truth and efficacy of this field of human caring and curing: He held up his hand flat, fingers outstretched and palm open, and invited me to put my hand next to his in the same gesture. “Do you feel that?” he said. “Do you feel the energy?” No, I couldn’t feel anything, including the inclination to assent to such nonsense. But Thomas got the three ladies at the table to assent, his wife, my wife, and a poet friend.

They felt something, I guess, which proved something —  that energy can be transferred evidently from one corpus to another and perhaps, in the bargain, effect healing. Thomas (but not his wife) held forth for some time on this subject, and when I interjected my doubts he got pissed, “A little respect, please!”

Yes, I was a rude host, though I can’t say things unseen and unproven are worth a lot of respect. If I were Ambrose Bierce, I might define respect, in fact (R-E-S-P-C-T, thank you, Aretha), as the demand for attention and assent that the facts do not support.

I don’t doubt that bioenergetics is a legitimate field of study in biochemistry and cell biology. (See the Wikipedia article for a brief technical discussion.) And that discoveries in this field might have implications for healing human disease, whether physical or mental. But pseudoscientific extrapolations from the field are all too readily available, in psychology and medicine (pseudopsychology and pseudomedicine), at the hands of those eager for new faiths and/or fast profits. (Again, for a quick overview of this kind of alternative healing, see the Wikipedia article on “energy medicine.”)

Call me a doubting Thomas, if you wish. A skeptic, for sure. Too many flimsy claims are being made on behalf of too many things unseen, unproven, and even impossible.


Human dignity

According to the Atlantic, “In Germany, legislators are attempting to address the spread of hate speech and false information online with a new law that aims to protect ‘human dignity’ on social media.”

Human dignity? They must have forgotten about Herr Freud, in his latter days, cancerous, moribund, stroking his beard, meditating love and hate, Eros and Thanatos as WW II broke out in Europe.

The Atlantic article says, “Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.’ This notion means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,'” one legislator says.  OK, so he’s talking about false claims, or lies. But dignity? What makes us dignified? The refusal to tell lies? How about indignant? The telling of lies?

Can we be forced not to tell lies? And if we have to be forced, are we in fact dignified?

Isn’t lying as German as Schweinekotelett, as American as apple pie? Not that lying is good,  or right, but it’s inevitable. Not that we want lies told about us, or want to lie about others, but we have the right to tell the truth, and so do they.

I prefer the American approach, with its First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even noxious speech. It’s part and parcel of our idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is not necessarily a happy, or easy, progress.

Truth will burn like acetylene.

Oh, you bully, you offended me! Of course, you did! You’re an idiot! Your idiocy speaks for itself. And there are plenty of us, after all, even in the age of Trump and the far-right parties in Germany, who can speak more fluently and powerfully than you and who will meet your hate speech with truth that burns like acetylene. Eventually, even the no-nothings will know this.




Crown Barbers

Have gone several times now to a new barber, or barber shop, called Crown Barbers. It’s three hip and/or bearded young men in a shop a couple of blocks off the Fayetteville Square. The clientele is mostly young and (would-be) hip, some with beards, some without. The barbers are Clint, the owner; John, the youngest and newest; and Ben, who cut my hair this morning.

All do a decent job, and then some. I prefer them to my old barber, whose esthetic was confined to “You grow it, I’ll mow it,” and an older woman barber I used a few times, also not far from the square, who kept a pet dog in a cage and the whiff of just quenched cigarettes in the air and who sometimes did a good job and other times was not attentive enough and couldn’t bother.

Crown Barbers. Why Crown? ‘Cause they’re royals? ‘Cause they crop our crowns? Whether nobles or peasant, the three barbers do a good job, as I say. If Jack fell down and broke his crown, they might not be able to help him: they’re not sawbones, after all. But if Jack came in all shaggy and furry, they could do the job.

Clint, the owner, decorates the shop with posters and signs and a couple of taxidermied animals, one a stag with squiggly horns and the second a wild boar with snarling lips and protruding fangs. Did these animals belong to the crown, or to the peasants? It may be the peasants who do most of the hunting these days, as one was shot by a customer, the other by one of the barbers.

Harry Potter wand
An interactive Harry Potter wand of the kind sold at Universal Studios.

Couldn’t get barber Ben to talk much to me, though he did talk to his colleague John about visiting Universal Studios in Florida, specifically the Harry Potter exhibit, where he got a magic wand. This wand didn’t transform him into a scintillating conversationalist, for sure, but then I was a bit more tucked into myself than usual. I did offer a titbit about Halloween, two nights ago, saying if the kids coming to the door were too big I’d query, “Candy or brandy?”

Addendum: a neighbor, aka Ben, appeared in the shop just after I did at 8 am or opening. The place gets crowded, so it’s best to get there early and put your name on the chalk board to reserve your place. As usual, I didn’t recognize neighbor Ben when he greeted me. (He’s seen me several times in public, and it’s always like I need an insistent formal introduction. What’s wrong with me? Do I have prosopagnosia, of the kind that Oliver Sacks discusses in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? Or would I recognize Ben readily enough if he were a pretty woman?)