Monday, May 22, 2006

"Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking."

"Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking."

Graffiti, in Paris, May (1968).

Images will be blocked by New Jersey hackers. Computer attacks must be expected at all times from defenders of free speech and democracy.

On Sunday, May 21, I joined New York's "AIDS Walk" to raise funds for treatment and research in the fight against the plague of our time. Twenty million are expected to die in Africa alone in the next ten years. 47, 000 of my fellow citizens, friends and neighbors (although some came from as far away as India) walked with me, as did my daughter.

I have been reading sections of Sartre's Search for a Method and thinking of his concept of "totalization," and it occurs to me that yesterday I saw and experienced a totalization of a mood. The mood of concern or pain, at the thought of all the persons known -- or even loved -- who have suffered and died from this illness. I walked yesterday for all of my friends who have died from this illness, but also for the great philosopher and teacher Michel Foucault, who died of AIDS in 1984.

My fear for the many millions more who will experience the horrors of this terrible illness -- which I have seen destroy lives -- is an important motivation to do what I can against the plague. 47, 000 is a respectable number. I hoped for more.

As we walked, many of us felt something that is all-too rare these days, a sense of community. The relationship among walkers was "mediated" (read Sartre, but also Ernst Bloch) by a shared concern and goal, the struggle against the scourge of AIDS. There was spontaneity and truth to the moment, which felt like oxygen for a suffocating man. We were experiencing a communal reality of concern and fear. In a horrible way, 9/11 was similar.

Reality is now mostly available at second hand, in movies, where we see an idealized version of what, we are told, real lives used to be like. The America of small town communities and Judge Andy Hardy is now mythical whereas the estrangement felt by many Americans from one another and their institutions has grown exponentially. To some extent, traditional small town America was always a myth -- today this myth is as distant as Egyptian narratives of the underworld.

When I lived in Cuba, as a child, scarcity required a ration card that determined how much sugar or coffee was available to each person. Now the people I see around me carry invisible ration cards that say how much reality they are entitled to receive. Each of us is allotted only a small measure of genuine human contact, but we can have as much as we like of the fake kind in the currency of media-images (as opposed to art) or commercial relations. (See the final section of my essay, "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

"You will end up dying of comfort." This was another of the slogans of May, 1968. Millions of my fellow citizens have died of comfort, the disease of affluence. I do not have the heart to tell them. Maybe they will never know it. One senses another moment of profound dissatisfaction and exploding anger in the air, an explosion that is perhaps only a few years away.

Revolution is coming again. It will begin in the streets. It will not come from the bored and affluent millions, but from many of those young people walking with me yesterday, articulating a sense of the anomie (Durkheim) and betrayal felt in a world that wraps them in plastic every day, even as it kills a child from hunger or disease every six minutes.

Feel free to correct this statistic. This is the last number I heard on this issue, which was several years ago. With the renewal of hostilities in Darfur, the situation is probably worse. Maybe it is every two or three minutes that a child dies. Meanwhile, Regis asks questions of his t.v. guests on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Regis turns to the camera -- while appearing to look directly at the idiot sitting across from him -- with a boyish smile that he has rented for the evening, Regis asks: "Is that your final answer?"

My "final answer," Regis, is that you can give the million dollars to the United Nations Relief Fund, along with half of the obscene amount of money that you are paid to ask that moronic question.

Some of the busy New Yorkers who passed us, on their way shopping or to the office for a little weekend work, seemed puzzled. We walkers were officially "weird." A few of the walkers, who happened to be young men, wore ballerina outfits. This produced the standard stares from on-lookers, even in New York, also laughter.

We no longer live real lives, of course, until tragedy strikes. We merely consume. We go to the mall and buy more things that we do not need to get the rush, a kind of momentary assurance (which is available for a small fee, a smile from the salesperson is extra) that we are still alive. We measure our worth and importance in terms of our capacity to purchase expensive items to provide this momentary satisfaction, preferably when someone is present to see that we have the means to consume conspicuously.

"Look at me" -- many of my former colleagues say, as I once did -- "I have money, so I must be real and alive. See my car? My t.v. set?" Now I only say, "see me."

The same plea for reassurance that one is alive also exists when upper-middle class types of a certain age have sex with attractive young people, young people who find their elders' wealth attractive. Sexual tourists exemplify the exploitative nature of so much postmodern mega-capitalism. They visit countries to exploit and use, then discard the resources of the place, including its young people. I hope that this will not happen in Cuba. There are ways of generating wealth for all, that are also equitable and fair. Responsible forms of capitalism are available.

The AIDS walkers, like me, are naive or foolish. We are "unrealistic," the ultimate put-down in affluent America. We are not practical. "The disease will not be cured by what we are able to raise, so it is better to do nothing." We are told: "Who cares? As long as it is not me or anybody that I care about, the hell with them." People say this until it is them, or someone they love. And the powerful and wealthy often remain powerful and wealthy by hoarding those things -- power and wealth, that is -- while refraining from looking beyond the "real world" (defined as their narrow class interests) to the millions whose pains pay for that power and wealth. Oil should be red in America because it is really the blood of millions that brings us that oil for our SUVs.

"Real" worlds are things that we make with the materials at hand -- what Sartre describes as the "practico-inert" -- which is the condition into which my successful, middle class brethren are slowly sinking, the condition of objects. We take the empirical and historical conditions in which we find ourselves and make of them what we will. This means that we are responsible for the world that we have made, another Sartrean theme.

It is truly depressing and frightening to imagine that I am somehow, even a little bit responsible for the morons that I see in black robes misjudging people in the darkest corners of the U.S. legal system. Get a load of this kindergarden class photo and ask yourself: "Why are these people smiling?"

Inevitably, we end by building worlds that are only portraits, for good or ill (usually, for ill) of what and who we are: The world is unjust, ugly, cruel, cold, unresponsive to our needs necause we are -- each of us -- all of those things too; but the world is also beautiful, filled with love, community is available, the future is infinitely malleable, revolutions are born and come to fruition. The world is your cynical, tired, angry parent; the world is also your beautiful, idealistic, passionate, brilliant girlfriend.

Who do you want to spend time with on Sunday afternoon? Why not become the person other people want to see on a Sunday afternoon? Why not transform the entire world into a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Why not spend time with both parent and girlfriend on Sunday afternoon? Why not try? Why not ... ?

It is time to have ideals again.

"Hell is other people," Sartre says. "Yes, but heaven is also other people," Marcel answers. I think they're both right. This is all so French.

You say I am only dreaming. I answer: Perhaps, but your dream that is called "reality" is a nightmare; my dream that is called "hope" is a realization "devoutly to be wished." You live what is, until it isn't; I live what isn't, so that it will be. Of course, I am thinking of RFK. And maybe I walked a little for him, too, because I know that he would have been with us. Not surprisingly, there were no U.S. Senators, Governors or Mayors on this walk. Just "little people," like me.

As we walked, a large group of students from the French high school on the East Side began to sing the French national anthem. I wondered if we were about to storm the Bastille. I suggested taking over Columbia University, but then we'd only have to pay the taxes for the property. That's our postmodern reality. People joined in the singing. There is no anti-French feeling in New York, but there is lots of anti-Bush feeling.

I sang under my breath, all the words I knew of this glorious anthem of revolution. I thought of Jose Marti's statue in the park, decorated with flowers for May 20th, Cuban Independence Day. I thought of the hopefulness of Jefferson and Madison at the birth of this great nation. What would they say today? I doubt their reviews would be favorable. July 4th is right around the corner, so I wonder: Are we still independent?

France is a dream for us, especially in New York, where Paris is everyone's fantasy. In Paris, the guy who worked in the hotel where I stayed was always asking me about New York: "Is it true that every French restaurant makes money in New York?"

He asked me this with a breathless eagerness. I answered, "Yes, pretty much." He explained that he wanted to get to Manhattan and make money. He probably has by now. Naturally, he also explained that he was a devoted Communist. I live in a society where the American Communist Party owns corporate stocks. The Communists are capitalists, or so I learned from Harper's. After all, they have to think about retirement and how to shelter their assets. That's also a postmodern culture, folks.

In a recent edition of The Nation, May 29, 2006, at p. 50, Catherine Smallwood reviews Michel Huellebecq's most recent novel, The Possibility of an Island. Huellebecq has captured a moment and mood in France, whose genius is tired right now, by "celebrating" nihilism and philosophical depletion, we are told of ...

... the brutalizing nature of late capitalism; for those lucky players in the free sexual market, the distractions of sex (albeit an increasingly routinized and decreasingly satisfying distraction); and the onset of a future even more rigid and joyless than the present.

Ms. Smallwood misses the point to much of this French "posing," which is only meant to provoke and outrage -- something which delights French intellectuals, like Huellebecq -- as they PLAY with ideas in a manner that is not only impossible, but unfathomable to earnest American young people, graduating from, say, Smith or Radcliffe, then "interning" at The Nation, as they work to save the world. I am certain that -- unlike Monica Lewinsky -- Ms. Smallwood does not purchase dresses at the Gap. She probably even goes on an AIDS walk. How stupid and naive can one be?

Bless you, Ms. Smallwood. I prefer your company to Huellebecq's, who would probably agree with me about this. Although I am not so sure, for where there is humor, there is still hope. Huellebecq's stilleto-like wit usually comes to the rescue in his work and (probably) in his life. Ms. Smallwood complains that Huellebecq is not "subtle." Worse, he is guilty of the ultimate sin in the world that Ms. Smallwood is likely to know. Huellebecq is not, gasp, "politically correct" or nice. "He is, like, so totally cynical." Well, duh.

Subtlety is not Huellebecq' strong suit. His typical fare is spiced up with brutally graphic, predictably boring and deeply misogynistic sex; stabs at ethnic minorities, especially Muslims; rants against global capitalism and expressions of raw grief [ask yourself, "Why grief?"] at the broken promises of the 1960s; and tirades against the veterans of May '68, who in his view shirked their responsibilities in the name of a revolution that degenerated into a sheer moral permissiveness.

What were you telling us about Huellebecq's celebration of permissiveness? So why is he upset by this licentiousness?

Huellebecq is not only subtle, but he is articulating concerns and dealing with issues only dimly perceived in this review. The book under discussion is clearly the work of a man deeply torn by feelings of commitment to ideals he sees as betrayed by his parents' generation, also hostile and nihilistic with regard to those same ideals -- especially romantic ones -- that he knows are the only things that make life worth living.

Huellebecq is a nihilist malgre lui. Huellebecq is (like anyone who drinks) in exquisite pain -- pain that he cannot decipher because he understands it only too well, whose causes are, partly, philosophical. THis will disappoint the bullshitters in New Jersey: I don't drink. I never drank when practising law. Crank up the smoke machine with some new bullshit about me.

I know that Ms. Smallwood will find this statement paradoxical, if not incomprehensible. Give her time, she'll get it when she sees her fortieth winter. Life is "complicated," Ms. Smallwood, like a hard calculus examination ro "whatever." (Is Ms. Smallwood related to Anne Milgram?)

In France and a few other places in the world, Ms. Smallwood, philosophical ideas are recognized to be life or death matters, which they are. Although Gore Vidal beat him to the punch in Kalki, here is what "subtle" looks like in the words of Huellebecq's "post-human" narrator-commentator ("post-human," like so many of us?) closing his highly romantic and apocalyptic work, The Elementary Particles:

History exists; it is elemental, it dominates, its rule is inexorable. Yet outside the strict confines of history, the ultimate ambition of this book is to salute the brave and unfortunate species which created us. This vile, unhappy race, barely different from the apes, which nevertheless carried within it such noble aspirations. Tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome and infinitely selfish, it was sometimes capable of extraordinary explosions of violence, but never quite abandoned its belief in love. ... This book is dedicated to mankind.

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