Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mark Sargent

LETTER FROM GREECE #17: Fireside existentialism

“The past devours the future.”  Thomas Piketty

I’m standing in line at the Lidl, a German discount supermarket chain.  On the conveyor belt are many bundles of skinny little hot dogs, no bigger than my finger, and buns and a great variety of quick foods my bourgeois pallet scorns.  It’s all being enthusiastically monitored by a ten yr old boy next to me, on a shopping expedition with dad buying just masses of stuff and beyond him is dad, maybe all of five foot tall, 45, short stiff ash coal grey hair, lean, worked outdoors, plenty.  The hard scrabble push and pull in the set of his face.  But scratching out a life in Sparti is a holiday, his father in Ukraine never hesitates to inform him.  He squints at the register total and pulls a fold of bills from his front pants pocket, his bank you would guess.  He’s got a few hundred in hand and peels off the required amount.  This is how it goes, folks are living out of pocket, and eating fast and cheap. 


“Too much of modern urban life revolves around never feeling less than fully at ease; about having even the minutest of experiences tailored to a set of increasingly demanding and homogeneous tastes—from the properly sourced coffee ground that make the morning’s flat white to the laboriously considered iPod soundtracks we rely on to cancel the world’s noise.  The logical extension of this tendency to perfect and customize everything has been to ‘curate’ our urban spaces like style blogs of Pinterest boards representing a single, self-satisfied and extremely sheltered expression of middle and upper-middle class sensibility.”           
That’s Thomas Chatterton Williams truthing up there.  The customized life, ain’t that something?  There are so many things to buy, so much work to do in the buying.


Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.  It’s not like anything else, the blending of memoir and fiction and history.  Lots are doing that, but he operates at a profound level.  I think he has echoes of W.G. Sebald, not stylistically, certainly, and I am reading them in translation, but still, there’s something there, their confidence with the materials and their freedom to mix, but Gao is much looser and ribald.  Then Jeanette Winterson’sWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?   A memoir of a bizarre Manchester youth with an insane mother.  Very funny.  On the cover is a photo of Jeanette about the age of four or five, in a swimsuit holding a beach ball on one of those vast expanses of sand you get at low tide on Brit beaches, buildings such as Brighton or Blackpool in the distance.  She’s wearing a heartbreaking grimace of anxiety on her wee face.  I’m having a good time, Mummy, I promise!  The kind you often see on the mugs of English children.


I spent an afternoon listening to a pitch from this guy who wants my help.  He called me yesterday with a “Mark, you’re the only person I can trust with this.”  I have a passing acquaintance with the guy, for fuck’s sake, how can I be the only…  Oh well, he just wants help cleaning up the English in some promotional materials.  I said I’d do a couple for him, but just short bits.  It was a little biographical riff.  I scrambled the info a bit and opened it with this: One Easter weekend, some years before I was born, my grandfather walked out of the house and was never seen again.  This is what he claims.  He wants to sell artisanal Greek country products aboard.  I have heard this idea many times, hell, I’ve even yacked about it, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who gave me the idea that they could really do it.  This guy is close, though.  Had to listen to more of his philosophy of life than required, but that goes with the territory.  I’m not the person that people come to with their problems, but many love to give me their take on the meaning of existence.


Finally winter.  The earth needs it, but not I.  Wet, thick, the dreary day sits on the mountain and spills down its sides, like an obese man on a stool, filling the valley with a slow roiling gray.  We sit by the fire all afternoon reading.  Mirella, having just finished Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War has begun Vargas Lhosa’s The Storyteller, while I’m deep into James Salter’s All That Is.  I’m too much of a Salter fan to make sound judgments.  Early in the book, our protagonist meets a beautiful young woman from the Virginia hunt country, (bitches in britches).  He’s young and talking, as the ambitious young do, about destiny, his destiny.  He asks her.  “’What do you think of the idea of destiny?’  ‘Hadn’t thought about it,’ she said casually.”   We realize at once he hasn’t got a chance and it will end badly.  If you’ve been raised amidst wealth, whiskey and horses, in a mini-society that values ‘going well’ above all else, why would you bother with destiny?  Quite obviously, fate had already been taken care of.  She’s a princess from a different planet, and if you take her away she will wither and die, or you will.  And Winter, well, it’s mostly in the mid-sixties here with lows around 50.  It’s been so mild that all the plants are fooled and budding away.  Is there a freeze a coming?  Something to burn the bloom off the branch?   The climate plays rough with the vegetable kingdom.           


R.I.P. Pete Seeger.  “Deep in my heart I know that I do believe that we shall overcome someday.”   But will we really?  What will we overcome?  War?  Injustice?  Hatred?  Stupidity?  How would that occur?  No, we shall be overcome, eventually or tomorrow, and the world will still be hurtling through space without meaning to.  That’s just what it does, as a mass, a sphere in emptiness (which is full), the weight and various gravitational vectors honing its orbit to the parabolic arc we find ourselves tracing.  It doesn’t need our help.  Or does it?  How would we know?  Though it’s a good bet we’re not responsible, as it has been working for multiple millions of years.  Is it necessary to believe in the eventual success of your struggle to engage in it?  Perhaps on the collective level it is?  The courage of solidarity, we’re all in this together.   And we are, but how to act that way?  And do we actually cause anything to happen by collectively holding that faith or is it just that the belief allows us to act, strengthens and propels, leads to events that tilt the bias, for a moment, that turns beneficial to our argument, to our tribe, village, union?  Our something, the our being the whole thing, really.  Or not.  Obviously, collective action can be horribly misguided.  Much has been written on the intelligence of the crowd, but it doesn’t seem to take much to turn a crowd into a mob that synthesizes and inflates all the worst prejudices that those individuals brought to the meeting hall, stadium, the public arena, or, as I previously mentioned, the streets of Vienna for the chance of a glimpse of the new Führer.

I’m reading Camus’ Notebooks.  He has plenty to say on these issues.  A theme in his twenties was to remain lucid in ecstasy.  Well, sure, he’s in his twenties.  He maintains that we create meaning through action, that we elevate the human condition through solidarity in rebellion.  That’s rebellion, resistance, the saying no; he had serious reservations about the very nature of mass revolutionary struggle.  As do I.  More to the point, “No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life.”                    
The American poet Maxine Kumin died very recently at the age of 88.  She used to require her students to memorize 30 to 40 lines of poetry a week, not only to ground them in the sound of poetry but also:
“The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner,” she said in 2000. “For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.”
Es verdad, Maxine.  Those types of individuals are thin on the ground in bourgeois Western societies, while, we get the impression, they’re tripping over each other in the Islamic world. 


Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics and an internationally renown expert in income concentration, has caused a great stir with his new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”  I’m cribbing from the first draft of Branko Milanovic’s essay/review that will appear in the June 2014 issue of The Journal of Economic Literature. 
“Capitalism, according to Piketty, confronts both modern and modernizing countries with a dilemma: entrepreneurs become increasingly dominant over those who own only their own labor. In Piketty’s view, while emerging economies can defeat this logic in the near term, in the long run, “when pay setters set their own pay, there’s no limit,” unless “confiscatory tax rates” are imposed.”
We can call the period between 1945 and 1975, capitalism’s Golden Age, when in the developed world the capital output ratio and net return on capital were low, taxation high, and the functional distribution shifted in favor of labor and personal income distribution became more equal.  Then came the Thatcher/Reagan revolution with reduced taxes on profits and income and the quasi elimination of taxes on inheritance.  This revolution changed capitalism but failed to raise the rate of growth which was its ostensible motivation in the first place.  Piketty feels that the Golden Age was an aberration, a phenomenon not likely to be repeated.  In the sixties and seventies, the U.S. marginal tax rate on highest incomes was in the neighborhood of 90%, now it’s 25%.  Piketty adds, “lowering of top tax rates leads to an explosion of high salaries which in turn increases political influence—through funding of political parties, pressure groups and think tanks—of the social group that has most interest in maintaining such low rates.”  Piketty’s proposal is a global tax on capital, global because a nation unilaterally imposing such a tax would more than likely experience a great rush of capital for the exits.  In the current political climate, a far-fetched idea, but not impossible. 

The simple truth of it is that taxes in the U.S. have to rise.  Federal revenues in the U.S. (I’m using Jeffrey Sachs’ numbers in a recent NYReview) have stabilized at around 18 to 20% of GDP.  That’s what the Feds have to spend, besides what they borrow, of course.  If you include taxes from State and local governments, the figure is around 30%.  This is several percentage points below the rest of the developed world.  Canada comes in at 38%, Germany 45% and that bastion of equality Denmark has 55% GDP to spend.  And Obama’s part in this?  Jeffrey Sachs:  “His campaign pledge to make the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for almost all Americans meant that there never was an Obama plan (or a plan by the congressional Democrats other than a few dozen progressive members) to fund the public investments needed for America’s future.”   


Javier Marías’s intense questioning of all assumption, his prismatic examinations sprawling down the page, leaping, paratactic connectivity coupled with flash prose.  I’m deep into his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Vol 2, Dance and Dream.  The narrator of these novels, Jacques Deza, has almost superhuman powers of observation coupled with the ability to analyze that data.  Consequently there are hundreds of pages that read like what follows.  Previous to the quoted passage he had been riffing on the idea of Judgement Day, he keeps many balls in the air, and references them constantly.    

“It did not seem to me that any kind of prescience was involved at all, his elderly gaze was no longer staring into a future that was as uncertain and, therefore, as blank and smooth as the floorboards, I was sure of that, rather, in his current state of amazement, it reached much further, to something beyond my head and Mrs Berry’s head, at which his gaze was directed, although without actually focusing on that either or not  entirely, and his wide eyes gave him a contradictory expression, almost like that of a child who discovers a sense of shock, or else some flash of intuitive knowledge, or even a kind of enchantment.  He was looking at something that was rough in texture, with a design or a figure on it, unlike the floor, but it wasn’t clear to me at all whether its outline was firm and distinct or it if belonged to the past.  It was as if he were gazing into limbo, that enviable place, the only one, on that final day, which according to ancient speculations, would be free of judgments and calculations and to which the Judge would withdraw now and then for some peace and quiet and to take a breather from all the atrocities and all the perfections, from the wild excuses and the overblown aspirations, perhaps to enjoy a small snack to restore strength and patience for the interminable sessions, and even to take a sip from the divine hip flask, a little trip to perk him up, before returning to the great ballroom where he would continue listening to those millions and millions of imbroglios and confused, pathetic, ridiculous stories.”   What quality of facial expression reveals that what you are looking at is rough in texture?


R.I.P Rene Ricard, critic, poet, painter,.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life,” Rene Ricard, then 32, wrote in an essay for The New York Times Op-Ed page in 1978. “If I did it would probably ruin my career, which at the moment is something of a cross between a butterfly and a lap dog.” “I honestly don’t need much money. People love to buy me drinks. Hostesses love to feed me. Famous artists lavish me with expensive artworks and heiresses do the same with jewels that I promptly lose. The fact of the matter is that if I worked a straight job I wouldn’t have time to do the serious business of my life, which is to amuse and delight, giving my rich friends a feeling of largesse, my poor friends a sense of high life and myself a true sense of accomplishment for having become a fixture and a rarity in this shark-infested metropolis.”


A guy I know posted this message adorned with the insignias of the various wings of the U.S. military.


This guy knows better.  I asked him, what did killing people in Vietnam, something he did quite a bit of, have to do with your freedom or anybody else’s?  Nothing, he said, I was just a dumb grunt doing what I was told.  Sounds like freedom to me.  What is it about vets?  They occupy a special niche in American society, understandably so, but for the wrong reasons as far as I’m concerned.  In my lifetime serving in the U.S. military has not been about defending, securing or earning freedom. It’s mostly been about the projection of military force into the third world and feeding what Eisenhower astutely labeled the military industrial complex.  The war on terror neatly filled in when the cold war thawed.  The U.S. is still suffering from a WWII hangover, not only in foreign but in economic policy as well.  Hence, every supposed enemy is Hitler.  I’m all for vets getting all the benefits they were promised and then some.  Matter of fact, those benefits should be extended to all adults: affordable housing, education and health care.  The society would be far better for it. 


The fire is bathing us in heat.  Mirella looks up from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and says,

The young have too much time to sit around thinking
about what life’s all about, when
it’s not about anything, really.

17 February 2014

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