Thursday, December 22, 2011

ABOUT TWO DECEASED LEADERS

This week two leaders died, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il. The Czechs, together with the civilized world, mourn a former playwright, essayist, leader of the Velvet Revolution and president. The North Koreans weep paradoxically over the demise of their leader who was their curse. The sadness in Prague engulfed the world of letters and politics. The hysteria in Pyongyang veers on the absurd but should not be disregarded. The North Korean leadership has created a virtual reality wherein the value system underwent a topsy-turvy manipulation, which led to psychological regression. The tears are probably as real in Prague as they are in Pyongyang, the difference being that the former originate in the soul while the latter emanate from a sophisticated permanent brainwashing of individuals who end up cloned and acting robotic. This does not lessen their grief, but it originates from an implanted chip, which cannot be reversed for the time being. Sadly, the death of some is a riddance rather than a loss. The scenes in North Korea remind me of certain Goebbels/Speer “spectacles” which we never want to see again. The North Korean crying game is the offspring of the Hitler salute. Both are fabricated, inoculated. The paradox is that the North Koreans, who have been “objectified”, became conversely hallucinated true believers.

Havel touched us because his courage and his all-too-human defects made him less a leader than a scholar. Also, as president he remained mostly a writer. It is not accidental that he showed some of the characteristics of that other great genius of Prague, Franz Kafka. He, too, passed his life trying to unlock the contradictions with which every honest man or woman has to deal with, on condition that they can muster the guts to look in the forbidding well of their fears.

In barren, cold North Korea there is no visible room for introspection. Leaders and people applaud each other in a ritualistic, almost primitive continuity. Even the circumstances of the death of the dear leader remain shrouded in some theatrical storyline made up for the masses. I still want to believe that this hell will someday have to face the “stress test” of reality. North Koreans deserve better than a life on an empty tarmac. Few North Koreans will watch the funeral in Prague. Havel defunct remains for the regime as dangerous as he was alive. His ideas would starve in this gulag of permanent alienation. The tears shed in Prague might be more threatening for the remaining lunatics in Syria, Zimbabwe and Sudan, than the bombastic arsenal of a lunar country. Kim Jong–un might be an understudy, but we better stay on guard. I am embarrassed to put Havel and Kim on the same page, but the art collections in the Hradcany Castle did not hesitate to let God cohabitate with Satan on the same canvas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Full of sound and fury

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS died. He passed away not quietly, as some expected from a man who had banned God to the lunatic bin, but enraged, an exhausted cobelligerent, allied with doctors who tried everything to prolong that which he played so often to be indifferent to.

He reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, who carried more than just one secret under her bons mots. He was merciless, unpredictable, unfair most of the time. He has left lots of us, learning he was gone, suffering from aphasia. When he was alive we thought he talked too much. Now we come to the conclusion he said too little. The man could be unfair both in his hates and his loves. He disregarded both as soon as he came too close, not risking to be burned. His hatred towards the Clintons (“contemporary Macbeths”), Prince Charles (“Prince of Piffle”) or Mother Theresa reached pathological ceilings. His on (seldom) and off relationship with Gore Vidal (“loco”) is one of two angry spinsters. Having left behind the Wodehouse world, he chose to live in the United States which he lambasted with an equal ferocity. Nevertheless, he could also be equally touching discussing Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Edward Said, Martin Amis, inter alia. His comments on world affairs were generally to the (acid) point.

Maybe this heir of Voltaire and the Enlightement wanted to over-stay, so that he could continue to wage war against the anti-intellectual tsunami which is engulfing Europe and America. The fact is that this contemporary Diogenes has no offspring and that the echo of the voice in the wilderness is fast ebbing away. The man who wrote “god is Not GREAT” will now be proven right or wrong. He is not coming back to share the outcome. Maybe he is currently talking to Nietzsche with whom he shared certain ideas if not the humor. Friedrich’s gain is our loss.

Good night, sweet Prince.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The flight to Varennes, Brussels version

The EU summit in Brussels this week is a story of a glass half-empty or half-full. The member states (minus the UK) agreed to a cap on spending deficits and penalties (unless a majority of members decide to overturn them.) Meanwhile, the banks continue to remain dangerously invested in shaky government bonds. No decision was taken regarding the lender of last resort. How Standard & Poor‘s will react is an open question.

The result is not all bad but it is overall insufficient. Egos were badly bruised. The UK (already out of the euro-zone) now finds itself isolated in the EU as a whole. The Franco-German “Merkozy axis” holds firm. It remains to be seen if the markets will follow suit. They might very well deem the measures too timid. In fact discipline overruled creativity. The existing toolbox provided for classical, not unexpected measures. More ambitious structural adjustments would have needed a review of, or an addendum to, existing treaties, which is anathema for the UK.

In Brussels there was more fear than gravitas. Hence the 27 have not reached Varennes yet, but they were getting close. The measures which were agreed upon will have to prove their worth. Meanwhile there is a different, more political development in the making, which remains largely unspoken. The EU has definitively moved eastwards. Berlin is no longer shy assuming a leadership role which might spread geographically, re-creating a contemporary version of a remodeled Mittel-Europa. Poland rises, the southern rim looks hopeless in the short term, France has no alternative but to follow Germany, and the UK sulks. The EU is not a happy family indeed. The US meanwhile might get slowly out of the deep hole they created by over-spending, under-investing in infrastructure and getting hooked to reckless wars and political gridlock.

It is to be hoped that the Europeans will not be complacent because this EU patient is still in the E.R. and the illness is highly contagious. The borrowing binge might well return with a vengeance as the meltdown of a big bank cannot be excluded, with major negative consequences for global growth. The Chinese distant attitude is a symptom which needs to be closely watched. The increased involvement of the IMF is a welcome, but insufficient move indeed.

The EU was able to avoid a meltdown for now. Brussels brought improvement if not a cure but there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Beggars and lenders mix in a cacophonic atmosphere. They should wake up and smell the coffee instead and recognize that, for the time being, Germany is the sole conductor. The fight between inter-governmental and federalist avenues remains inconclusive. France wants more Europe because it needs a ladder to stand taller than it is. Germany requires a set of binding rules and no inflation erga omnes. The UK finds itself de facto isolated and P.M. David Cameron may have taken up a fight which might have unforeseen repercussions on the Continent and in London. The carriage to Varennes was overcrowded and lost precious time bickering on the way. Historical precedents may look irrelevant but they might also teach us a lesson. Both the EU and the euro-zone need to give unambiguous signals so that transparency both in remedies and endgames will reassure the world at large. If the UK really wants to bid as in a bridge game, it better distinguish between a hand with winning cards, or a hand without loosing cards.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

THE TUNNEL

On the night of August 30, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed died in a car crash in Paris in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel. The driver, Henry Paul, died also. Only Trevor Rees, the body- guard, survived. The Mercedes looked like some funeral art piece, as only the American installation artist Edward Kienholtz could have created. Pillar 13 still stands in the tunnel, totem for a Paradise Lost. This accident immediately became a soap opera and material for staged accident freaks. The body-guard is a useless witness, remembering nothing, an unwilling participant in a tragedy where his memory loss added to the absurdity of what almost became a Greek tragedy. Mohamed Al Fayed, Dodi’s father, has never stopped crying “wolf”since. The British monarchy was in damage control, behaving with class under terrible stress. The same cannot be said of the Spencers, who chose to overreact while having given Diana the cold shoulder, after her separation from Prince Charles.

Everything has been said, imagined, suggested with regard to the circumstances which surrounded the accident. The vulgar fought for territorial control against the grief. Exploitative comments poisoned respect, while the tabloids in the UK and the paparazzi in Paris acted more like accomplices than witnesses of horror. It is useless to return to this cesspool of voyeuristic hooliganism.

Diana became a symbol malgre elle, playing, often premeditated, on her extraordinary charisma. She was ruthless in using it both for causes she believed in and for the guerilla warfare she waged against her ex-husband and the now Duchess of Cornwall. I think by the way that the Prince of Wales was right in marrying his former “companion” later on, and disagree with the anti-Camilla camp. After all, the fairy-tale marriage of Diana and Charles was an empty one. When it ended, Diana could finally become the irresistible woman we would see in front of our eyes, day after day. One did not expect or demand her to be perfect. On her own terms she made a pact with the people and the media and stood by it, enlightening the lives of many who were transformed by her touch, while she was in full control of her image. She had an extraordinary aura to communicate and to master body language as a cipher. The recipients were many and diverse. From the young pregnant woman snoozing at an official party to the elegant royal dressed in Versace, she remained like a battery which never failed a beat and accumulated endearment and love. I wonder how the men she dated later on managed to stay that close to the sun. She was not that formidable intellectual but she became more the mirror of inner feelings, glamour, frustrations, love, and sex. She ended up being a fetish, a fantasy. One never liked her later lovers (known and whispered) since they were close to her and this left outsiders with a taste of having been abandoned and, ironically so, cheated upon.

On that fatal night in August 1997 the world went cold. We were sad because we suddenly had the intuition that a page was turned. The former good feeling was indeed nothing more than a candle in the wind. Diana’s death was experienced as the agony of all that which makes life unpredictable, fragile, but worth trying. The world today looks as if the confirmation of that sudden turn for the worse continues to happen in front of our eyes. Pillar 13 is like a perverse prelude to 9/11 and to the general aphasia which has left us speechless since. The last icon may have disappeared. We are left with the consequences of our apostasy, our abandonment of a reassuring sense of happiness, which in the current socio-philosophical landscape looks almost utopian. The Diana obsession continues to carry a ritual component. There was nothing really outlandish about a woman who in reality was indifferent to any other cause but the ones of her own choice. There was a form of exhibitionism in her systematic crossing of borders. She did not play “closeness”, she was “closeness” in disguise. She was conscious of her imperfections. So were we. A complicity was made possible because the parties involved, she and us, knew that the carriage could also become a pumpkin, if convenience or circumstance required it. Aren’t we all homesick for Shakespeare‘s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day “? The sonnet still exists but the begetter has no longer followers. I couldn’t help but thinking about all this after seeing Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia.” The summer day seems to have made room for an endless winter of discontent.

I perfectly realize that major events are more forceful than the ephemeral impact of one individual. The young who found their lives wasted in useless wars deserve equal if not more compassion than a princess, misguided and lost in the labyrinth of the equivocal. They have in common that they did not ask for humiliating ends to lives not lived and aspirations frustrated. Still, I am sure that the real, contradictory Diana meant more to them (and to us) than her absurd image in a sordid Murdoch paper. She healed the way she could, modestly and probably incoherently, navigating selfish narcissism and uncontrolled generosity. She represented a variety of competing emotions and for that reason she remains irredeemable, at the same time trivial and enchanting. Her sons must be blessed by memory and cursed perhaps by pomp and circumstance (Othello III3.351).

Friday, December 2, 2011

LARS VON TRIER

This cineaste often works on people’s nerves. His latest film “Melancholia” is in a way atypical insofar as he chose to film in a lower key than usual. The chamber music changes from the aggression of his earlier movies. However, he seems to be unable to decide between a coherent oeuvre that chooses to be “over the top” or “under the weather”. So we are mesmerized in this latest movie by a meditative, intimate fall from grace which is interlaced with seemingly prophetic images of unidentified things to come. The chaos in the movie house becomes a counter-point for the chaos outside. The actors are obliged to undergo a gradual process of having their personae stripped bare. As always there is some sadomasochistic element in this latest Von Trier film, which is at times embarrassing for the actors and the public alike. Denials never last, relationships are hell or sexual consumerism, and escape is the ultimate joke. The acting is great because Von Trier does not give in and the actors have no moment of respite, unless opening the soul with a scalpel equals needlework.

The meaning of the movie is too allegorical for normal consumption and Wagner’s music (the prelude of Tristan und Isolde) is over-manipulated in ways which would not have displeased the F├╝hrer. Still, the moments of beauty and almost perverse mental displacement and alienation are unforgettable. The end of the planet is more a wish fulfilled than an outcome dreaded. When the two sisters and the child build a construction of some twigs to find refuge, they signify that they have come to terms with inevitability, opposing fragility against force. The end is a logical acceptance of the saying that nothing lasts. This realization is not the outcome of some elongated process. It hits like short-lived pain. Maybe this is more a metaphor about deliverance than a walk in the realm of mental insomnia as described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Everybody in this film comes to terms with inner feelings and frustrations and finds solace in letting go, be it in death, hate or Wanderlust. The irony is that at the end all this was already taken care of by ”the end” to come, on the condition that one could read the signals. One just needs to be more sensible than others, to avoid the mediocrity of always wanting to keep things in one’s own hand.