Monthly Archives: April 2020
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I ought to join a club and beat you over the head with it, [but] I would not belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
- Two Groucho cracks joined together
A few decades ago I lived in low-rent East Hollywood among junkies, assorted burn-outs, and people playing extras — in movies and in life. A California native, my move there from the East Coast was a kind of homecoming. Fit a typical bill, I imagine: living with friends in a bungalow, working as an IBM temp through Manpower, smoking a lot of dope, reading Nietzsche, listening to Wagner, learning to play violin, writing poetry, eating next door at Shakey’s pizza joint (ragtime music, cheap beer, cheap eats), and, finally (maybe even inevitably), being invited to be an extra in a movie (Raid on Entebbe, Israeli commando).
But East Hollywood was a dirty place. I didn’t like being asked by a total stranger if I’d like to come up to their mother’s place to shoot up heroin. And standing at a bus stop to go to work, you’d note newspaper boxes and beside them boxes filled with smut rags, reminding one of all the kids who’d run away to Hollywood to become stars and ended up fellating some wannabe Harvey Weinstein on a Naugahyde casting couch and finding fame as naked cover girls on these rags, their telephone numbers included. Or homeless starlets sleeping on the Walk of Fame. Smog all around you, smut in a box, you felt dirty and in need of a shower, all the time.
Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing is a funny — at times hilarious — memoir, for the first 200 pages, and that’s just as well, as the reader needs that extra bounce and buoyancy for when the gravity of Mia Farrow’s entry, midway into the narrative, kicks in, and the voice-over begins to snarl and get ugly. You knew it was coming, suddenly it’s dirty, and you find yourself showering, hoping you don’t drop your Irish Spring, even though you’re in that jungle rain all alone. You’re protected in your thinking: East coast movie-making is worlds apart from all that Hollywood sleaze. But then Woody introduces Mia’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and you recall him helping Jeffrey Epstein get off easy for molesting all those girls. On the East Coast.
The memoir is broken up into three distinct parts — or acts, if you want to see its movie potential. In Act One, Allen directs us through his Brooklyn childhood, including his Jewish home life; indifferent education; avocations; early gag writing, stand-up comedy and movie aspirations; musicianship; womanly girls who enlightened him and girly women he married. Act Two is a descent into one man’s moral hell: making love to Mia, the milkshake Mama from Rosemary’s Baby. Act Three is an attempt to recover dignity by name-dropping and a bitter blowing of raspberries toward a woman who has destroyed his reputation to the point he’s “not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses.”
Act One of Apropos of Nothing is vintage Woody Allen story-telling. He starts out by saying he’s no Holden Caulfield, (but, by the end, he’ll seem like he’s doing all he can to be a catcher in the rye). He paints his childhood Brooklyn as a busy, multicultural village teeming with hustlers, small time hoods, future social democrats (Bernie Sanders grew up Midwood, like Allen), and the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, white baseball’s first Black player. Allan Konigsberg, Woody’s birth name, was an amateur magician and an avid card sharp, who spent his time developing “false shuffles, false cuts, bottom dealing, palming” — sleight-of-hand skills that, presumably, would inform his later movie-making.
He describes his Mom as a Groucho Marx look-alike who nagged him for wasting his IQ by underperforming at school, but he honors her by noting how her outside work and completion of domestic chores “kept the family from going under.” She pushed his further education relentlessly and questioned his life decisions in an effort to engage his critical thinking skills. She was an Old School mother full of tough loving.
He feels bad for loving his mother less than his Dad, but the latter was a kind of hero to young Allan. Dad was part of “a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl.” And that, in the spirit of JFK’s PT 109, “during World War I his [father’s] boat got hit by a shell ..sank… [e]veryone drowned except for three guys…[and] that’s how close I came to never being born.”
His father owned one book, The Gangs of New York, of which Allen said, “it imbued in me a fascination with gangsters, criminals, and crime. I knew gangsters like most boys knew ball players.” His father was a bustler and hustler and a criminal, too. “How he loved that life,” writes Allen. “Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie [Allen’s mother] is a mystery on a par with dark matter.” Allen’s parents stayed married for 70 years, “out of spite,” Allen speculates, and you can almost picture them as the interviewed parents critical of their criminal son depicted in the early Allen romp, Take the Money and Run.
Act One has two surprises. Allen indicates a youthful athleticism, lithe games of pick-up basketball, and unpredicted agility playing shortstop in baseball games. But the bigger surprise is Allen’s repeated denial of his Intellectualism: “This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster…I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head.” And, “I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’” Methinks the laddy doth protest too much; he’s not just a shtick up man, as he pleads, but is capable of pointed deconstructive criticism: Pulling Marshall McLuhan into the frame, in Annie Hall, to take down a mouthy, “pontificating” NYU professor in line behind him at a cinema was genius.
Another aspect of Act One of Apropos of Nothing that you can’t help but pick up on as you go is Allen’s generous spread of Yiddish words and expressions that serve to remind the reader of the schlemiel character Allen often portrayed early in his career (although, some say he’s more nebbish than schlemiel). Since most readers are likely not familiar with Yiddish, the inclusion of these words causes one to stop and look it up. We get the following: kvetch, schlep, yentas, shul, mishigas, gonif, momza, mitzvah, schlemiel, schnecken, tummler, schlumps, schmoozing. Mashugana, schmuck, kosher, noodge, schnooky, mensch, rube, yokel, schlepper, klutz, lammister, shekels, schnook, weltschmerz, shiksa, chutzpah, and nudniks. Comedy’s fast, funny Yiddish slows, and given what’s coming in Act Two, it’s a good strategy.
It’s a real treat reader-performing Woody’s early years, as he moves toward gag writing for newspapers and then comic performance. As a young atheist everything was open to revaluation. First up, the fools of his education. “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” he writes. “with its dumb, prejudiced, backward teachers.” But more than “the coven of teachers” he hated “the whole regulated routine:” march, line up, feet straight, “no talking, joking, note passing, nothing.” He played “hooky” frequently, often finding himself at a library or at MOMA: “There I was at fifteen…confronted by Matisse and Chagall, by Nolde, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff, by Guernica and the frantic wall-sized Jackson Pollock, by the Beckmann triptych and Louise Nevelson’s dark black sculpture.” Funny stuff, truancy.
He found himself in trouble with the school dean for turning in writing with lines like, “She had an hourglass figure and all I wanted to do was play in the sand.” After he showed a few of these, someone advised him to start sending in gags to newspapers. He writes,
…I have to warn the reader the one-liners were not the equal of Voltaire or La Rochefoucauld. They were mother-in-law jokes, parking space jokes, income tax jokes, maybe an occasional topical one. Example (and don’t shoot me, I was sixteen): “There was the gambler’s kid who went to school.
in Vegas. He wouldn’t take his test marks back—he let ’em ride on the next test.”
Pretty offal stuff, but the seagulls loved it, haw-haw.
The narrative takes a serious leap into maturity as young Allen becomes interested in the opposite sex. We learn that his strongest youthful influence came from the womanly girl, Rita Wishnick, “an attractive girl, a polio victim who had a slight limp” with whom he hung out, platonic-style. They went “to movies, the beach, Chinese restaurants, miniature golf, pizza joints.” Rita came from ‘respectable’ middle class Jewish stock that were “getting educated to teach, to become journalists, professors, doctors, and lawyers.” It was from this relationship that Allen later decided to give NYU a try. He cracks, “I was a motion picture major for no other reason than watching movies seemed nice and cushy.” And almost middle class.
His success as a gag writer, leads to renown in the neighborhood, which leads to a knock on the door by someone with an angle on his talent who wants to be his manager — Harvey Meltzer. Allen sketches him up, as arriving at his door with “a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of facial tics.” It was a good move; he did have an angle, and soon Allen was doing stand-up, cutting comedy albums and writing for top talent — eventually leading to a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show. (For those really interested in this portion of Allen’s career, see The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader.)
The maturity that he gained hanging out with Rita pays dividends when Allen meets up with real women, albeit girly ones for the most part, like Harlene, who would become his first wife. She was “pretty,” “bright,” and was into music and theater. She came from “a good family,” who, despite his getting seasick on their boat, were glad to see Harlene marry up-and-comer Woody. Of Harlene, Allen recalls, “I must say, for a college-age kid, I took her to very romantic, sophisticated places. Off-Broadway shows, Birdland to see Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Candlelight restaurants in Manhattan.” But their marriage turned into a “nightmare,” as Harlene couldn’t adapt to Woody’s West Coast lifestyle, and his struggle to be not-Mort Sahl, which he likens to being a saxophonist after Charlie Parker.
But then Allen stumbled upon “the neurotic’s philosopher’s stone, the overlapping relationship” in the guise of Louise Lasser, a Brandeis drop-out, with whom he gets on famously, and immediately. She is smart, witty, beautiful, and soon becomes “the apotheosis of my dreams.” He loves her energy and quirkiness — she makes spaghetti for eight, unable to figure out portioning, and always “with six portions leftover.” She’s his coach, his psychologist, his champion and he looks at her “standing, her head tilted so her long blond hair could hang down on the ironing board as she ironed it over and over to make sure it was straight.”
And what’s more, his apotheosis “was supersonically promiscuous” and “had a cottontail’s libido.” He describes her going mad with lust while they’re ordering dinner at a restaurant one night:
“Let’s go,” she says, wanting what she wants when she wants it. “Where?” I squeal, being pulled up and dragged to the door. “We’ll be right back,” she tells the waiter…Now, being hustled through an ensemble of garbage cans, I am pushed into what is a dark, secluded outdoor spot in midtown Manhattan…We make love and not too long after I am sitting over my portion, a beatific smile on my face, her cheeks rubicund with fulfillment. Women like that do not grow on trees.
But imagine if they did, you know, literally; autumns would be something, huh?
However, all good things come and come and come to an end. In Paris to film Casino Royale, things fall apart not long after he and she sit down for dinner at a restaurant with the Burtons. Cleopatra calls him “a pockmarked Jew” and Mark Anthony ripostes about her excessively expanding girdle, “and they’re doing this all for the benefit of me, a total nonentity.” Later, while he’s playing five-card stud with Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin — the cast from The Dirty Dozen in town for some shooting — his apotheosis is out finding a new sexual orbit. He couldn’t keep pace. Things got rancorous; she got demanding (“I refer you to Shakespeare’s Fifty-Seventh Sonnet”). They remained good friends.
Later, he hooks up with Diane Keaton, who dressed “as if her personal shopper was Buñuel.” She becomes an important role player in a series of some his most successful movies that followed, including, of course, Annie Hall (the title of which, Allen says, evolved from Anhedonia…Sweethearts…Doctor Shenanigans…Alvy and Annie…I decided on Annie Hall, using Keaton’s
birth name). Well, La-Tee-Da, indeed. The Oscar-winning Annie Hall was full of great writing, acting and directing. There was the McLuhan scene, but there were so many other great ones: there’s the early classroom scene where Alvy explains his “healthy sexual curiosity” as a 6-year old; there’s Alvy snarking as he and Annie people-watch; and, there’s Alvy’s reference to politicians being one rung below child molester.
Allen’s life and career are arguably at its heights by the time Manhattan is released in 1979 to great applause. The story involves a character, Isaac (Allen) who is in love with Mary, a pretty divorcée (Keaton), while also dalliancing with a 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He dumps Tracy, telling her she should go to London and be with boys her age, so that he can shack up with Mary. But she’s interested in someone else, and dumps him, upon which he tries to hypocritically resume his predatory designs on Tracy — just as she’s leaving for the airport — only to be rebuffed by the teenager.
A year later, he began dating Mia Farrow. He writes, “She turned out to be bright, beautiful, she could act, could draw, had an ear for music, and she had seven children. Tilt.” The same expression Allen used to describe what happened when his father’s life of ‘getting action’ stopped abruptly when he fell for his mother, ‘Groucho Marx’. Tilt. It gets messy quickly in this quarter of the book, as Allen spends pages and pages of knocking Mia Farrow’s character, explicating the charges of child molestation she publicly aired against him, shortly after she discovered erotic photos of him with another of her adoptees, Soon-Yi (to whom he’s married), and defending himself, bringing in a vast array of actors to be the McLuhans of his message.
Frankly, the narrative goes downhill rapidly, as Allen understandably employs his keen and acerbic wit to analyze Farrow’s psyche. When Allen brings up her role in Rosemary’s Baby and then alludes to her testimony in support of Roman Polanski’s character in his own child molestation case, I lost interest in this petty play for my sympathetic reader-response. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe him; doesn’t mean I do. But the reader interested in this messy moral goss is well-advised to decide for him or herself after reading readily available appropriate court transcripts, as well as a Yale New Haven investigation that includes interviews with Dylan Farrow, the child Allen allegedly molested. Make up your own minds.
But one under-reported angle that holds a lot of weight for me is Ronan Farrow’s alleged sober observation of Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.” Tilt.
The last quarter of the book picks up pace and spirit again. There are moments when Allen seems to employ gratuitously provocative descriptions of people, such as his quick sketch of Scarlett Johansson:
She was only nineteen when she did Match Point but it was all there: an exciting actress, a natural movie star, real intelligence, quick and funny, and when you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones. Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.
Well, I agree, but I’m not a director under fire for wolfing at young women.
There are an assortment of tidbits worth reading, however. For instance, he tells us that he almost landed Jack Nicholson for Hannah and Her Sisters, but had to settle for Michael Caine, after Jack found himself obligated to star in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, with daughter Anjelica. He notes, “The end result was Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award that year for Best Actor and Michael Caine for Best Supporting.” Allen tells us, he almost starred opposite Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre, but that Shawn Wallace took over at the last minute, because “I just didn’t have the professional dedication to memorize the long speeches.”
The best bits of this section are his brief anecdotal descriptions of his intersections with legendary directors: Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. “Bergman invited me to his island a few times but I always ducked it,” he tells us. “I worshipped the guy as an artist, but who wants to take a tiny plane to a Russian-owned island where there’s just sheep and you only get yogurt for lunch? I’m not that dedicated.” A great “language barrier reef” kept him from understanding Truffaut when they passed “like ships in the night,” and he played phone tag with Fellini. He adds wistfully, “They’re all gone. Truffaut, Resnais, Antonioni, De Sica, Kazan. At least Godard is still alive, but he always was a nonconformist.”
As for his own legacy, let it be known, he writes that he regrets he “never made a great movie” and that “apart from not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses, I simply went about my business and worked. I worked while stalked, vilified, and smeared.” You could do worse than to go out, mistaken for Groucho.
By John Kendall Hawkins
First of all, let me say that I love Bob Dylan. Love him.
As I wrote here in an overwrought piece last year, I have, like a latter day Prufock, measured out my life with Dylan tunes. I wrote a concert review piece for the Melbourne Age back in 1997 (Time Out of Mind period) that swooned toward the momentum for seeing him eventually being awarded the Nobel prize. The fuckin’ guy’s a legitmo genius. Nat Geo has a series called Genius, that so far has profiled Picasso and Einstein (with Aretha Franklin and her Pink Cadillac up next), and I could easily see Dylan in the cue: Cubism, Relativity, Soul, and that Harmony-in-One-Breath he self-references in “Precious Angel.”
But Dylan’s new song, “Murder Most Foul,” sucks. It sucks historically. It sucks so bad, I felt an obligation to nominate the song for the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature. And so passionate was my plea for recognizing this song for what it’s worth that I got an email back from the editor of Improbable magazine, sponsors of the Ig Nobel, a simple, “Uh, thanks, John.” I wrote, in part:
It’s horrible. In an historic way. Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack. It’s the worst Dylan music since the whole of Self Portrait, on which, ironically, were the first Dylan tunes I really liked — “Wigwam” — where he just hums and hums while the Band stuffs behind him, and “Quinn, the Eskimo,” where everyone’s waiting, like for Godot, to jump for joy, but with Quinn it’s because he’s bringing hothouse igloo ganja. Everybody knows Godot, if he arrives, will be bringing re-fried Sartre,
“Murder Most Foul” is like an acid trip within an acid trip, where the inner one went really wrong, and the outer trip couldn’t pick up the slack. One of Dylan’s greatest abilities as a songwriter over the years has been his magical talent at turning cliches and truisms into lyrical gold. Just a fucking master at it. With “Murder Most Foul,” he’s turned into the Alchemist of Shit. I mean it. It’s even bad conspiracy theory. There are professional theorists out there who will now have to go through strange and mysterious changes as a result of this song. I like to think that when Dylan wrote “Ring Them Bells” for all of us who are Left, he had someone like me in mind. But now I’m thinking Quasimodo, ringing dem bells, and pouring some hot liquid down on the mob (former fans, I understand) below.
It’s like he can’t handle his legacy going the way of Marley, his One Love turned into muzak delivered from Trump Tower-like elevators on which you are always in fear someone might fart just as you’re singing the lyrics in your mind, your index fingers automatically doing that parallel index finger dance thing,like windshield wipers : Let’s get together and feel alright. Pfffft. If Dylan is a genius to me, then Marley was once like a god. But not a stinking god of Muzak. How could the CIA not be behind this post-mortem humiliation? I’m thinking.
The lyrics of “Murder Most Foul,” the title derived from an Agatha Christie novel, border on inchoate. Some really crazy shit going on here, even by Dylan’s loose associative poetic license standards. Dig it: Dylan sings, from JFK’s POV, “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb / He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” Aside from the blatherscheissen this rhetorical question represents, “Wait a minute, boys” sounds all too familiar: A cop from “Hurricane,” another conspiracy-enticing song about the wrongful conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carrter, said the same thing: “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead.”
Then he WolfmanJacks, “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” So, with “we’ve,” Dylan is now officially a conspiracy theorist. Kennedy died because he over-owed someone, it seems. Gee, who could you owe who would take you out if you didn’t pay, without caring about the consequences for the nation or democracy? Verse 4, with all its play this, play that, depressed me to the point of suicidal ideation. “And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day / Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” That’s factually impossible, if you do the math, but also a truly horrific image. The pagan wolfman speaking in tongues: come again?.
In these days of locusts, no end in sight, Dylan might have written about something relevant. He could have written “I Dreamed I Saw Covid-19 Land.” To be current and all scared-up, like the rest of us are supposed to be. Or, he could have written “The Climes They Are A Changin’”. Nuff said on that front. Or he could have reprised the implicit threat included in his song “Precious Angel” (“Men will beg God to kill them / but they won’t be able to die”) by icing a precious angel, no-prisoners-taken Revelations style. But such dross instead!
Well, we’ve been down this road before with Dylan. When he wrote “Titanic” for his album Tempest, now, he purportedly was at home on the couch watching Leo and Cate go upstairs/downstairs on TV and went to town on some paper and produced what had been his worst song before “Murder Most Foul.” (Playing at the edges of conspiracy theory, he released that album on 9/11.)
You can well imagine Dylan couch-potatoing on the same sofa, years later, not once in his career having brought up JFK before, suddenly, digging into the popcorn, while watching The Irishman, the Netflix film about Jimmy Hoffa directed by Martin Scorsese and starring De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, and having sold the viewer early on the notion that the Mob took out Kennedy for reneging on his promise to lay off if he delivered Illinois’s electoral votes to Kennedy, he reached the Joey Gallo murder scene in the movie, and wondered to himself if Scorsese was true to Dylan’s depiction in his song “Joey,” where Dylan says of Joey, eating dinner in a clam bar in New York, “He could see it coming as it he lifted up his fork.”
Dylan’s depiction of Dallas, November 22, 1963 is awful. But he’s been criticized for making shit up before. But he was also taken to task for his portrayal of the facts surrounding the Hurricane Carter murdercase. His song, “Hurricane,” off Desire, the same album as Joey, was made fun of by National Lampoon magazine in a send-up piece titled, “Ex-Singer Held In New Jersey Slaying,” which implicates Dylan and The Boss. More serious criticism followed, with one sleuth calling Dylan out, line for line, for the alleged factual inaccuracies of his song.
It’s difficult not to think that Dylan, despite garnering every prize and plaudit imaginable for his contribution to American culture, and civilization in general, as evidenced by his Nobel prize in literature a few years back, still worries, as Shakespeare never did, whether his legacy is safe. But nobody really gives a shit about JFK any more, what with Trump in the White House (and what that implies about the nation), and Climate Change, and Covid-19 breathing down our necks. So the choice of this song, its quality, and release timing are very suspect.
It’s hard to not think of Dylan as akin to Hemingway’s fading fisherman, Santiago, the Cuban hero of The Old Man and the Sea, not long after which Papa won the Nobel prize for literature. In that novella, old man Santiago goes fishing, one last time, for marlin in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. After many hours and much struggle, he lands a biggie and hauls it, along the boat, and heads for port. But sharks come and, despite Santiago’s best efforts to ward off destruction, they end up eating all the meat off the marlin, so that Santiago ends up arriving home with a skeleton.
Sharks have been circling Dylan for years, and maybe the realest cruelty of “Murder Most Foul” is its exposure of a genius with nothing left. On Time Out of Mind, there are two great vintage Dylan songs on the album — one is “Trying To Get To Heaven” and the other is “Highlands.” The former has mind-blowing lyrics like, “When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more” and “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / If everything is as hollow as it seems.”
But the scatalogical character in “Highlands” could sum up Dylan, in the context of our times:
The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away
If there were gods still who had pity, you’d want them to lead Dylan gently away and fade, to the Highlands where he belongs, before he feels the blow of what he must already know, that, like the worn-out character Dylan wills through Time Out of Mind, he is himself a ghost who must let go.
There are no more marlin for him left.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I used to be Deleuzanal, but, now, I’m not Saussure.”
– Toilet stall wall riddle, next to Nietzsche Is Peachy
Someone must have called Slavoj on his Radphone in the middle of the night and said go over to your window and look up at the sky; he did, and there it was: the Rad-Signal lighting up a silver Z. Some thought it was a call for Zorro; some said Zarathustra. Slavoj is a little bit of both. The voice on the phone continued on loudspeaker, “There’s a virus afoot, Slavoj, we need your wisdom.” He thanked the caller, an anxious acolyte, and hung up the phone. He climbed out of his phone-booth pajamas and raced over to his word processor and typed like a maniac on a mission from the entity formerly known as God.
Because he’s a genius, he was finished in an hour, saved the pdf, and sent it to his publisher: Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World. The exclamation mark there to build up the threat he faced. Could this be his kryptonite?! Or his finest philosophical hour? The world waited for the master’s work with baited breath. Read it and seep.
In his introduction, Slavoj Žižek starts off Pandemic! by quoting from the Bible, John 20:17, “Noli me tangere,” the one where Jesus has Arisen and Mary Magdalen recognizes him and comes a-running to give him a hug, and he says,”Whoa, don’t touch the threads, Mary. I’m a Made man now.” Or, he has a virus; maybe her simplex has rubbed off. We’re all herpes hosts; it erupts once in a blue moon, like original sin, to remind us we still have moral work to do. Žižek says we mustn’t touch each other, but, at the same time, if we use this historical moment properly, “there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others.”
Žižek makes the all-important point that “we are all in the same boat now.” This is a truism, and explains why he gets the Big Bucks. One pictures the maiden Titanic asea, but, now, without the worry of icebergs ahead. Rather, the worry is whether there’ll be any ports ahead not under water. The Upstairs/Downstairs of Das Boot, held together by a melancholy stringed quartet, Cate and Leo, twin figureheads at the prow of the new flying dutchman we call the world. “Hegel wrote,” writes Žižek, “that the only thing we can learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, so I doubt the epidemic will make us any wiser.” Or, we’ve nothing to fear from history but fear of history itself.
Žižek says, “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible.” This is probably true, if the Plague lasts long enough. We read the pressures are mounting: domestic abuse, already a crisis in America, is bound to go into full swing; jobs are dropping like flies; cantaloupes (meaning all migrant agro) lie unpicked and bleeding in the sun; talking heads buddy up with news broadcasts from their cribs (presumably). One head says, through Žižek, “What iswrong with our system that we were caught unprepared by the catastrophe despite scientists warning us about it for years?” Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed.
Panels pick apart the symptoms and point pingers, and “The usual suspects are waiting in line to be questioned: globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich.” We make bells of our hands and wring them, Bobby Dylan-style, for all of us who are Left. Žižek says, Frank Wells told his brother H.G. that the feckin’ White Devil pommies had wiped out the aborigines of Tasmania, and that’s what inspired War of the Worlds, and that “Perhaps an epidemic which threatens to decimate humanity should be treated as Wells’s story turned around: the ‘Martian invaders’” and that it’s ironic that “we are now threatened ‘by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,’ stupid viruses which just blindly reproduce themselves—and mutate.”
Žižek asks, “Why are we tired all the time?” Some of the answers are terrifying. But he posits that most folks are so caught up in pleasing The Man, polishing his apples with a smile, and as Wordsworth sighs, “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Žižek says,
When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caregiver is exhausted by a demanding charge, they are tired in a way that is different from the exhaustion of those driven by obsessive career moves. Their tiredness is worthwhile.
You don’t want to know how tired I am, nor how seasick.
Žižek takes some time to pot-shot the Israelis. Suddenly, with the arrival of Covid-19, Yahu’s nits are all largesse with the PLA, and are now ‘helping’ in Gaza, “not out of goodness and human consideration, but for the simple fact that it is impossible to separate Jews and Palestinians there.” The new rule: any Palestinian looking to give a hug to a “muscle tough” border guard will be shot. The Kamila Shamsie debacle is noted, the author “retroactively stripped” of a literary prize, says Žižek, ostensbly for “participating in…boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014.” Nothing to do with the virus (or does it?).
He knocks the Turkish-Russian alliance, calling it “Putoğan.” Žižek blames the alliance for the Syrian refugee crisis. “A perfect storm is gathering,” he says. “Three storms are gathering and combining their force above Europe. The first two are not specific to Europe: the coronavirus epidemic…[and] the Putoğan virus: the new explosion of violence in Syria between Turkey and the Assad regime.” The third storm is, he writes, the refugee virus — “a new wave of refugees organized by Turkey [may] have catastrophic consequences in this time of the coronavirus epidemic.” This is being forced on Europe, thanks to the Putoğan stranglehold on oil to Europe. Žižek predicts that “populist racists will have their heyday.”
In a section he calls Welcome To The Viral Desert, Žižek complains that “The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered a vast epidemic of ideological viruses which were lying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism.” But Žižek is holding out for the arrival of a johnny-on-the-spot better-angels-of-our-nature virus and that a “much more beneficent ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking of an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.” I’m thinking, how about Pax Americana? But Žižek’s all about a manifest commie destiny. I’m conflicted.
To make his manifesto come to life, Žižek says Chinese communism must die (and probably capitalism, too). He believes the death could come suddenly, after a brief bout of violence. Think, he says, the “‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,’ the deadliest blow in all of martial arts.” He references, he actually references Tarantino, Kill Bill II, Beatrix (playing Covid-19) striking Bill, and Bill, played by the aging David Carradine (who kinda looks Asian and American, so fits the bill), takes one for the team, and after a teary ideological goodbye with his killer, dies. I’m welling up now, as I think of the simultaneous deaths of communism and capitalism. Music in my head, “My Corona.”
Next, he brings up Dr. WHO and “capitalist animism” and, out of nowhere, he adds, “Do not play with yourself.” Excess is the road to the palace of wisdom, Blake tells us, but damn. Anyway, Žižek manages to move on and leads us, like a google-eyed Virgil, through the Inferno, to a version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, and applies it to epidemics, on our way to the beatitudinal Beatrix. As we recall, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Žižek asks rhetorically: “And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemic that exploded at the end of 2019?” It’s a hoax; China did it; well, at least it’s not SARS; we’re fucked; okay, let’s work this shit out.
Ever the optimist, because he’s got tenure, Žižek insists we can get over this pandemic and looks to historical precedents and seemingly refers to Foucault’s History of Sexuality (you can’t always tell) when he brings up medieval times and plagues and how they got past it all to finally produce Us. He adds a Step here, between depression and acceptance — “orgies.” Because, they reasoned, says Žižek that “since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible with lots of drinking and sex.” I thought, for no particular reason of the beginning of Foucault’s Sanity and Madness, and the reference to Narrenschiffen (Ship of Fools), and the transport of the mad from port to port on seasick asylum ships, and that recalled the Janus film classic, The King of Hearts, instant Carnival and a near-Corona.
He asks, “One interesting question raised by the coronavirus epidemic, even for a non-expert in statistics like me, is: where does data end and ideology begin?” This is a fair, if unelaborated query, given the Age of the Algorithm we’ve entered. He adds, mysteriously,
Many dystopias already imagine a similar future: we stay at home, work on our computers, communicate through videoconferences, exercise on a machine in the corner of our home office, occasionally masturbate in front of a screen displaying hardcore sex, and get food by delivery, never seeing other human beings in person.
Medieval porn, one presumes, and, um, why the objectification of the Dominos pizza guy?
Žižek says, “ I caught myself dreaming of visiting Wuhan. The abandoned streets in a megalopolis—the usually bustling urban centers looking like ghost towns, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or a single car here and there, provide a glimpse of what a non-consumerist world might look like.” This reminded me of a book by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, who in The Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind), described a holograph machine of the near future set up in the den, where you could send your bratty, privileged kids. Schmidt asks: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Wuhan? Maybe a coronavirus view of things for the brats?
Žižek references famous activists and reckons that that’s what’s missing. He honors the memory of the whistleblowing doctor who alerted the world to the virus before he succumbed. He writes, “Li Wenliang, the doctor who first discovered the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and was censored by authorities, was an authentic hero of our time, something like the Chinese Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.” And, “A Chinese Julian Assange is needed to expose to the public the concealment in China’s response to the epidemic.” This response could include “doctoring data” to show recovery where there is none. They may be commies, but they know das kapitalist strategies.
The ever-optimistic Žižek cites potential temptations we need to be aware of:
From a cynical, vitalist standpoint, one could be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed so that younger, healthier plants can prosper, and thus contribute to global health.
He tells of “three wise men,” Magi coming not to celebrate new life, but grim reapers grinning down. “Under a so-called ‘three wise men’ protocol,” says Žižek, “three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care.” Damn, who’s gonna tell Grandma that the nice smiling doctors want to kill her?
Žižek is not advocating the Three Wise men approach here, although he does support euthanasia. He writes,
I want to assert that I am being an utter realist here: one should prepare medicaments to enable a painless death for the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our first principle should be not to economize but to assist unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.
So don’t panic; Žižek has not gone over to the Other Side.
And then, lo and behold, he cites a phone conversation (unreported by the MSM) that Greek politician and writer Yanis Varoufakis had just a few days ago with Julian Assange, who weighed in on the Covid-19 crisis during a phone call from Belmarsh. Assange told Varoufakis that “this new phase of the crisis is, at the very least, making it clear to us that anything goes—that everything is now possible.” Varoufakis tells Assange, “Whether the epidemic helps deliver the good or the most evil society will depend, of course, on us – on whether progressives manage to band together.” Fuck, are we that desperate for change that we’re putting allour eggs in Covid-19 basket? That’s deplorable.
And that leads to his final section, Communism Or Barbarism, As Simple As That! What does the future hold for humanity? Following on from the Three Grim Reapers scenario, Žižek visions up:
I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc.. More than open barbarism I fear barbarism with a human face—ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.
A kind of global Velvet Revolution! Featuring communism, without the tanks; a brotherhood of sisters; the 1% diluted; Animal Farm, the sequel (Boxer, the glue of society, graciously remembered); everybody sharing shit, the return of peer-to-peer networks. Man, imagine that! I got your pandemic: I got your pandemic right here.
By the time Z. ‘s finished, a half-mad globe is put back in some semblance of order. Our “avowed Christian atheist” has convened a new world order of fresh-faced Communism; Corona has abdicated, Climate Change has been biff-bam-boomed. That was the Plan, anyway. But, lo, after all is said and said, Z. is back in his phone-book jammies and half-asleep, when there comes a rap-rap-rappin’ on the windows and a knock-knock-knockin’, actually a loud banging, on the door.
Outside, his acolytes — deconstruction workers, panpsychists, old school existentialists, sordid coprolaliacs, and Derrida — are coming at him, the walking dead, and he waits, like Vincent Price, in The Last Man on Earth, he waits, with all the answers, as they chant, “Zizek! We’re going to kill you, Zizek!” and he falls and he falls into an opioid slumber, a white hole event horizon, where no darkness can escape.
by John Kendall Hawkins
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” (1797)
Humans have been getting pissed, pilled or puffed with intoxicants for ages. You could argue that Eve got the ball rolling, and that the forbidden fruit was Dad’s stash, and, hell, if you pushed it, you could see how all of history is her hallucination. We’ve all had our ‘altar-ed’ moments of holy sees on hooch or hash, all alone or at a ‘college’ bash. No one sums up the venal virtues of imbibing better than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend: C’mere, he says, and you’d better.
As far as University of California historian Benjamin Breen is concerned, the Western world spent the better parts of the 17th through 18th centuries colonizing, Christianizing and commodifying the New World and Asia in search of exotic products — and news ways of getting high. The British and Portuguese led the way in this endeavor, and the details unfold like a poppy flower in Breen’s The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade.
Breen’s exploration into our common druggie past comes in two parts: The Age of Invention and Altered States. The latter is rather self-explanatory in its purpose, but the invention Breen refers to is the colonial appropriation of drogas (drugs) and their re-branding over time as they go from being strange, exotic imbibables, at the edge of being legal, to fully ‘trusted’ mainstream intoxicants. He cites tobacco, chocolate and coffee as examples of mind/body-altering drugs that have undergone such a transformation from strange to beloved.
Breen begins his narrative with an image that sets the tone for what he’s trying to achieve with his thesis: “There is a small plaza in Lisbon… called the Miradouro do Adamastor. At night Dealers in MDMA, hashish and cocaine begin to ply their wares…Paradoxically, the north end of the plaza is…dominated by an elegant building that happens to house Lisbon’s Museum of Pharmacy.” Rough illicit trafficking versus a clean symbol of the history of capitalized control, often of the same droga. In his delineation of this age-long negotiation (which he insists continues to this day), he promises that “the reader will encounter merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, feiticeiros, inquisitors, witches, alchemists, and natural philosophers.” His initial focus is on the Columbian exchange and Amazonia.
Breen follows the almost-bumbling Captain Francisco José de Lacerda in his search of Brazilian Amazonia for yopa, ayahuasca, bezoars, ipecacuanha, copaiba balsam — but, most of all, china china (aka, cinchona or quina). This introduces us to a totally overlooked fact: China, the nation, is named after a drug. The drug, what we call quinone today, is an anti-inflammatory and anti-malarial medication that, ironically, it seems, was found only in Amazonia and helped conquistadors overcome malarial fevers in order to do a little ass-kicking in the name of capitalism and Christianity. It also helps explain why gin and tonic water (with quinine) are so popular in the tropics, sitting out on your ex-pat balcony, watching the local help at work.
Breen’s description of the Amazonia captures its beauty and mystery:
The oldest iterations of the river system actually flowed westward, emptying into the Pacific Ocean as they passed through foothills that would eventually become the Andes. They dripped from regions of eternal snow to arid mountain sides…The waters nourished eagles with twenty-foot wingspans, giant sloths, and saber-toothed cats. In the green twilight below the forest canopy, countless creatures waged evolutionary war, with chitin claws and prying fingers, hallucinogenic toxins….
It was into this region that Lacerdas got lost, scratching and peeling, looking for china china, and always barking up the wrong tree.
As Breen explains these early explorations into the unknown interior of Amazonia,”It is little wonder, then, that the Portuguese spent their first few decades in the Americas stumbling in the dark, trying and usually failing to make sense of the hallucinogens, poisons, stimulants, and remedies that surrounded them.” When they came across ayahuasca they had to rely on local shamans, “who were closely guarding hard-won knowledge,” to teach them, not only what it was, but how to prepare it, and, perhaps most importantly of all, what its purpose was and what a user had to know before imbibing it. For a Christian European, ‘becoming one’ with the ayahuasca during imbibing,must have seemed intuitively familiar (communion) and darkly esoteric at the same time.
This acquired knowledge, writes Breen, “Exchanges of knowledge about drugs moved along vernacular, colonial pathways long before they reached natural philosophers in Europe.” Still, it became not only useful but crucial for traders in and collectors of these drogas to have natural philosophers waiting at home to,in essence,midwife them into the mainstream over time. One thinks of the role of holistic medicine, herbology, and naturopathology today, which often offer ‘fringe’ medicines that may become part of the mainstream someday. At the same time, they are perceived along a continuum, from serious complementary medicine to cornball hokum that seems to rely on your buying into a latter day form of sympathetic magic.
The next stop on the conveyor belt of cultural processing from a drug making its way through a designation of foreign or “Oriental” to customary and trusted was its appearance in the early pharmacies, known as apothecaries. Breen describes the scene:
The substances alone were of ambiguous utility; they required someone with the knowledge of how to prepare them. Apothecaries were the intellectual go-betweens [from drug merchants to users], the artisans who drew the active virtues out of “simples”…and transformed them into remedies.
This is where, according to Breen, a drug, having made it through the grapevine of the ‘vernacular’, becomes re-branded or ‘invented’ by respectable “shamans” in lab coats, who operate on the drug’s chemical properties, with scientific reasoning supplanting bush folk wisdom.
Breen adds, “The widening scope of what apothecaries could do with drugs created new opportunities for societal power and wealth.” But, in addition to accumulated wealth and the power of Empire, the drug trade was a process of self-discovery every bit as important as the Scientific Revolution then underway. “In the history of science,” writes Breen,”the globalization of non-Western drugs transformed understandings of both intoxication and addiction and helped spur the formation of new theories of consciousness. The effort to delineate mental processes impacted by intoxicants arguably led to a greater concern with subjectivity and the roots of thought itself.” This ability to ingest foreign intoxicants led directly to an Enlightenment of the self, albeit it was an accident.
Africa gets a special focus. In addition to the drugs that come under consideration, place — landscape — and ritual, especially feitiçaria (fetishism), when combined with colonial efforts to subdue the environment leads, at times, to a phantasmagorical sense of foreboding, as if the very air were a kind of intoxicant or hallucinatory presence. Breen writes of “the transformative powers of the landscape itself” and “a panoply of poisons lurking in African nature.” [It’s] a place of venoms, fevers, and psychoactive powers,” where hot rains produce lesions, and venomous worms emerge from wool shirts, ‘monstrous creatures’ seem to lay in wait, a place where the corpses of slaves are “repeatedly disinterred by lobos de noite and … strewn in the street [contribute] to the poisonous miasmas of the place.”
Africa is also a place of intersection and conflict between the rituals of the Catholic missionary sacraments and local feitiçaria practices. The consecration of the body and blood of Christ through the sacramental rite is, when the wine-dipped wafer is ingested, say, by the priest, can be a form of intoxication. Breen writes,
When Portuguese padres threw fetish objects in the fire and replaced them with crosses, books, and communion wine, they were not only attempting to substitute one set of spiritual beliefs for another—they were competing in this larger, Atlantic sphere of creolized commerce and healing.
It’s a rite, in the context of colonial conquest,that is not necessarily seen as the invocation of Absolute Love, but brazen hostility.
Breen introduces the African warlord Jaga Caconda who explicitly rejects the Portuguese “mission.” Breen describes how Jaga entered an Angolan church and deliberately “profaned” the sacrament by drinking from the chalice. But, he goes on,
[T]he Jaga Caconda was not merely making a mockery of the communion,as the Portuguese believed. He was performing an act of spiritual and pharmacological appropriation. By consuming the ritual intoxicant of his enemies, he was gaining access to—and asserting mastery over—the sacramental drug that was one of their sources of power.
An in-your-face irony. Just two ‘cannibals’ talking in a dogma-eat-dogma world.
As a note, Breen writes of a brighter view of Africans when he gets around to discussing the innovative ganja-smoking Ethiopians, home of the future Haile Selassie, and possessors of the water pipe, which will go on to spur the growth and expansion of the nascent poppy industry. The water pipe proves to be the perfect delivery system for smoking opium. Breen observes, “As a vehicle for the delivery of psychoactive and addictive alkaloids, pipes were a radical new technology of drug consumption in regions like Europe and East Asia, which had no prior access to them….” Because water pipes don’t directly inflame the opium but, rather, warm it, more poppy goodness is psychoactively delivered to the seeker of wise, smoky ways.
Speaking of opium, Breen begins his final section, “Three Ways of Looking at opium,” with a image of a “cathedral-like” warehouse full of jars being maintained by Indian workers (real Indians, not the ones opium addict Christopher Columbus went looking for, and probably fucking high):
The shelves seem to go up forever…Seven men standing at their full height, arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next,would reach only halfway to the top…They spend their lives in this series of vast chambers.There is a geometric rigor arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next, would reach only halfway to the top….
One thinks of the slaves of Giza
Breen describes the three ways he wants the reader to “look at” opium, each stage representing a facet of his developed thesis. First, he writes, we should consider the obvious — “the simple flower, millions of years old, that humans began to domesticate around 10000 years ago. Like the sacred psychedelics of mesoamerica, it has a history of altering, and being altered by, Homo Sapiens.” In short, by a freak accident of nature, we have, Breen reports, a unique symbiotic relationship with opium: “By… chance…a certain type of flower began to produce molecules that corresponded to the chemical signatures of orgasm or laughter.” Next thing you know, you’re swimming with the endorphins and embracing new porpoise.
The second way Breen wants us to see opium is “a thing that is meant to be turned into smoke.” He cites psycho-biological reasons for this. He seems to imply that opium was born to bring us into its dreamworld of smoke, not unlike ayahuasca. Opium, like ayahuasca, is talking to you: C’mere. Again, Breen makes clear that the Ethiopian water pipe not only made smoking opium a more efficacious means to a glorious high, but mainstreamed its use in general. For instance, while still on the margins of acceptability in London in its smoke form, it was eased into use by the stiff upper-lippers in the form of laudanum and in the ingestion of Sydenham’s drops, which were opiated.
The third way to see it is an empire-building commodity, “a raw material for industrialized pharmacy.” Wars have been fought over it — in China, and Manhattan. We lost Jimi and Janis to it. It’s become normalized, maybe in dangerous ways, through the wonderful warm rush of morphine and the current state-assisted “desperate American yearning after OxyContin or heroin.” Breen calls out the German chemistSertürner for what Breen regards as his near-revolutionary ‘discovery’ of morphine in 1805. (Sertürner settled in Hamelin, home of the Pied Piper, who, when double-crossed, made off with the town’s children.) Anyway, as far as Breen’s concerned, “The isolation of morphine was the culmination of an Enlightenment project of isolating and defining the individual functional parts of complex systems.”
Breen closes the book by looking to the future. He points to new forms of intoxication that don’t necessarily require ingesting a drug, per se, any more. For instance, he calls social media a kind of drug that bypasses our gastrointestinal system and goes right to the brain. “Looking forward, emerging technologies like virtual reality, direct brain stimulation, or mind-machine interfaces hold out the promise of drug-like effects on mental and physical states….”
And, no doubt, the closer we get to the Singularity (if we make it that far), and the quantum bliss ahead, being and nothing at the same time, the more affected we will be by intoxicating experiences. And there’s always room for the kind of religious experience we saw with William Hurt in Altered States (with special effects that equal 2001 IMHO) after he hooks up in Mexico with some Toltec types. In fact, Breen closes by suggesting that “the Age of Intoxication is just beginning.”