Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have long held a somewhat morbid fascination with plague narratives. Now, with the new coronavirus, it seems that the whole world is collectively living through one.
As a genre, stories of epidemics or pandemics cut across the categories that we normally impose on texts: fiction and nonfiction, highbrow and lowbrow, literature and film and even video games. And they span history from some of the earliest human efforts at storytelling to recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Here’s a distinctly incomplete list: the biblical plague that God sent against Egypt in Exodus; the plague of Athens in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides; the plague of Justinian as described by Procopius; the Black Death in Italy as told in the framing chapter of Boccaccio’s Decameron; Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year; Samuel Pepys’s diary describing the same plague in 17th century London; Camus’s philosophical novel Le Peste; Blindness by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago; sleek Hollywood productions like Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and entries in the sub-genre of zombie stories like “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” and many others. I’m sure that a book or film with a title like “The Year of the Coronavirus” will be out before we know it.
“The world is what it is,” V. S. Naipaul famously wrote. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
I wonder whether I have allowed myself to become nothing.
Despite being a lawyer, I have never been a good liar. I never lied for my clients. Technical truths? Sure. Outright lies? Never. For a while I tried to practice lying, because mendacity is such a useful life skill. I got as far as telling obviously ridiculous fibs about my job at cocktail parties: “I am a hamster farmer,” I might say. “I work at the circus as a lion-tamer.” But these were only jokes.
But the emblematic figure of our age, the dominant mode of existence, the era-defining vocation, is the confidence man, the scam artist, the fraud.
I think it was Professor Elaine Scarry who defined beauty as the quality that inspires the desire both to possess and to replicate.
It’s always struck me as a very good definition. And, living the way I do, I constantly see the idea in action. At every scenic spot, every brilliant sunset, every famous castle or palace, hordes of tourists snap photos of the same things. In the age of the smartphone, one marvels at the thought of how much of humanity’s collective data storage capacity is taken up with endlessly repeated (and mostly bad) photos of the same sights and things and places. But unlike many other seasoned travelers, I do not judge too harshly the amateur photographers. First of all, I’m not sure I’m in any position to throw stones. Secondly, they do no more than what beauty requires of them: taking a photo of something is at once an act of possession and of replication.
But a recent piece in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino on the “Instagram face” has me revisiting this concept of beauty. Scarry’s definition applies to human appearance as much as it does to sunsets and paintings and vistas. Beautiful people inspire eros, and sex is at once an act of possession and of replication in its possibility of multiplying the species — which was why Freud equated it with the will to life itself.
I was recently in Venice for the third time in my life: it seems that, without so planning, I go to that most splendid city once every decade.
When we miss a destination or decide to skip it, we always say “next time” or “it’ll still be there.” But Venice actually may not still be there by the end of this century. A city of marble built on a lagoon, there is a very good chance that by then it will be underwater, a modern day Atlantis. Mere days before I arrived, the city had suffered terrible flooding. The interior of the iconic Basilica di San Marco was knee-deep in water.
And that’s only as far as our climate projections go. Projections never say what happens after 2100, as though climate change will magically stop the moment the clock ticks over, because we neither can nor want to contemplate the possibilities. Look around Venice and you see the celebrations of the achievements of past centuries: wings in the magnificent galleries are devoted to the trecento then the quattrocento then the cinquecento — the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s — down to modern times. But there will probably never be a Venetian art of the 2100s. Not only is the time horizon of our climate projections pathetic when compared to the reckoning of the earth, but it is pitiable even when measured against our own humanistic achievements.
Several factors have conspired to put my mind on the things that we own, that I own, and our relationship to them.
Last weekend’s episode of “Patriot Act” on Netflix taught me that, in the 1980s, the average American bought 12 new items of clothing every year. Now that number is 68. And much of the increase is due to the rise of “fast fashion,” the production and purchasing of cheaply and quickly made clothes followed by their equally rapid transformation into trash.
And it is now the holiday season on the Western calendar. This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the US, that celebration of the seemingly unbounded plenty that the New World was supposed to provide. Thanksgiving was of course followed by Black Friday, that annual ritual of Americans lining up outside and then pushing into stores like a stampede out of “The Lion King.” In fact, one of my curmudgeonly pet peeves about the world is that many other countries, even without Thanksgiving, have adopted Black Friday in an effort to encourage consumerism.
I have spent enough time in Varna by now that I can hardly get away without mentioning its connection to my pet interest: John Hunyadi.
Faithful readers of this blog may recall my arguably odd interest in this medieval Hungarian nobleman, Hunyadi János to the Hungarians and Ioan de Hunedoara to the Romanians. In 1456 at Belgrade, he led an alliance of European armies to victory over the Ottoman Turks, halting Ottoman advance into Europe for a century.
If Hunyadi’s life were a Hollywood feature, Belgrade would constitute act 3, the hero’s final triumph and apotheosis. Varna, on the other hand, would happen at the end of act 2, his greatest defeat and the nadir of his career. Today Varna is a mid-sized semi-resort town on the Black Sea coast where Bulgarians and Russians and other Europeans and, yes, Turks, like to come to relax. But like so many places in Europe, it is also the site of much tortuous history.
Since I started traveling, I have come to feel as though I have two birthdays. There’s my actual birthday in August, and then there’s my traveler’s birthday, today, July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations. In travel years, today I turn four.
And every year around July 1, I feel as though I should have some profound new insight into the meaning of life. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise this year. But, for a number of reasons, I have been pondering the role that luck plays in our lives.
First it’s because I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, the Wall Street trader and essayist who gained celebrity in the wake of the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008, has popularized a number of concepts. One is the “black swan”: an event considered rare and unlikely that nonetheless becomes inevitable given enough time and ultimately has outsized impact. In the same way, if enough monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters for long enough, eventually one of them will type out Hamlet.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."