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.
A recent “Dear Abby” column recommended that parents who may have non-Western backgrounds give their children “traditional ‘Western’ names.”
A non-Western name, Abby wrote, can “cause a child to be teased unmercifully” in school. She went on: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers, and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”
Unsurprisingly, there has been a substantial amount of backlash, not least on that fount of genteel and good-natured discussions called Twitter, against this bit of racist-lite parenting advice. But the controversy makes me consider the significance of my own name, or rather names.
For no particular reason, certainly not because of the politics of our day and the new UN environment report saying that we have twenty good years left, #sarcasm, I have had the end times on my mind.
It was in this frame of mind that I visited ancient Mycenae the other day. I first saw pictures of the Lion Gate and Cyclopean Walls when I was in high school and read the mythology surrounding this place. Many of you know the story. The three major “tholos” or beehive-shaped tombs here are ascribed to three major characters from that tale: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy, Menelaus and his big brother demanded satisfaction. So Agamemnon rallied the Greek states for a join assault on Troy. But the goddess Artemis commanded unfavorable winds so that the Greeks could not set sail; for the winds to change Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his own daughter. He did so, killing his daughter Iphigenia. The Greeks attacked Troy and finally destroyed it after ten long years. During Agamemnon’s absence, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as a lover. And upon his return, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. His son Orestes then killed his own mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father.
There’s a story from my days at Yale that I don’t remember ever telling anyone. But then I watched Mr. Kavanaugh make “but I got into Yale” into a moral defense against accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Well, so did I, buddy, so did I. And in my case, I actually had no connections to the university, whereas his grandfather was an alumnus.
In the summer of 2001, the summer after my freshman year, I rented a house just off campus on Lynwood Place with several classmates. Each of us had intended to major in one science or another — physics in my case — and each of us was working that summer in one lab or another.
Summers are when American colleges hold reunions. One Friday night, when I happened to be the only one in our house, the doorbell began to ring incessantly. I went over to the window from which I could see who was at the door. It was a white man in his mid- to late-twenties. And he was visibly drunk. He saw me through the window as I saw him.
“We gather here to mourning the passing of American greatness,” said Meghan McCain at her father’s funeral. Not the passing of a great American, but of American greatness. More than anything else, more than any not-so-veiled dig at Trump, that was the line from all of the speeches that I heard that struck me the most.
There is a special agony in watching a once-great civilization writhing in its death throes. You kind of wish someone would put it out of its misery. Having to watch it die, paradoxically at once all too swiftly and in excruciating slow motion, cannot be anything but the most dispiriting spectacle. But that is what we’re being treated to nowadays watching the United States destroy itself.
Both the Washington Post and Rotten Tomatoes decided to remind me this week that it’s the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential films of our age, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Before those of you who are sick of superhero movies (or have always been too snobbish to enjoy them) start rolling your eyes, let me quote Roger Ebert (as the Post also does) in pointing out that The Dark Knight is a film that transcends its comic book origins to become “an engrossing tragedy.”
And I am hardly the first person to read into the film something beyond the surface of its plot and action sequences. At the time of its release in 2008, many saw it as something of a metaphor for America in the age of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Gotham might be a stand-in for Baghdad, and Batman a stand-in for the U.S. military, his very presence by the its violent and extreme nature inviting escalation and challenge. In the end, Batman wins a pyrrhic victory through mass surveillance like the NSA. At the more obscure end of commentary,
the good folks over at Overthinking It (hey Mark) presented an interesting essay interpreting the film through the philosophy of Schopenhauer: Gotham as Will and Representation.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages in a debate with his friends Glaucon and Adeimantus that strikes me as suddenly newly relevant to our age.
Bear with me.
Socrates, like all great moral teachers in history, proposes that one must strive for moral virtue, or “justice,” as he calls it. His companions offer a counterargument. They point out that, even if a person is just, if he or she is perceived as unjust, then that person will suffer all the negative consequences of being unjust anyway. Glaucon puts it in graphic terms:
My childhood hero was Richard Feynman, Nobel physics laureate and trickster god for science students everywhere. Feynman read at some point about a distant country called Tuva and decided that he absolutely had to go there.
Tuva was a part of the Soviet Union, nestled between northwestern Mongolia and Russia. And during the Cold War, the difficulties for an American scientist of Feynman’s stature to travel there were all but insurmountable. The Soviets would hardly grant him a visa, and the Americans would hardly let him go.
But Feynman was determined. He spent a decade trying to obtain the necessary papers even as he grew ill with cancer. His friend Ralph Leighton, who was supposed to accompany him, later wrote a book, Tuva or Bust!, chronicling their quest.
You might say that Feynman felt fernweh for Tuva.
It is by now a cliche that, since January 2017, parody in American life has died. That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is much more difficult to tell these days what is an Onion article and what is real news coming out of the West Wing.
But now we are living through not parody but a horror film. Specifically, a teen slasher. Think Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, The Faculty, and of course related works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its explicit and oft-referenced antecedent, Scooby Doo.
In these products of pop culture, as a trope, the adults in authority positions are always craven and corrupt or simply clueless as to what’s going on. (OK, some exceptions, like Giles on Buffy as an ersatz father figure.) The teen protagonists, and some of their teen friends, are the ones who know the truth and who fight the forces of evil with what wits they can muster in spite of their hormones.
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."