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The Collective Ruin

October 27, 2010

The current NY Review of Books has a very engrossing article on the Romainian-born philosopher E.M Cioran by Charles Simic. (“Insomnia’s Philosopher”, NYRB, Nov. 11, 2010). The piece discusses Cioran’s early fascination with National Socialism stemming from his stay in Germany from 1933-5. According to the always interesting Mr. Simic, Cioran’s romance with German fascism had much to do with his despair over the dodgy nationalism available in his perpetually beknighted Romanian homeland as his (Cioran’s) lifelong inability to get a good night’s sleep.

In one stunning paragraph Simic provides a remarkable summation of Cioran’s description of Hitler’s appeal:

His (Hitler’s) merit, Cioran amazingly claimed, consisted of having stolen the critical spirit of the nation with his capacity to seduce. This, he further stated, was “the dramatic destiny of any visionary, dictator, or prophet.” What he witnessed both enchanted and horrified him and made him question the fragility of the instinct of liberty in mankind. Human beings, he told his readers, both aspire to liberty and exult each time they lose it. He saw Germans raise their hands toward their leader, asking impatiently to be enslaved and be led to their collective ruin.

Past For Rent

October 26, 2010

Today I saw a bit of the past for rent.

I was walking along the Bowery for little reason other than when I walk in New York,  as I have done more or less incessantly for the past fifty odd years (or since I first came to Manhattan from Queens on the subway by my lonesome at the age of 10),  I often set an unthinking compass for certain venues.  Thirty years ago it was often Forty-Second Street,  the rundown Hell I found so unavoidable. Today it was the Bowery, no longer home to bums,  where turning uptown from Bleecker Street,  I saw that the Amato Opera was “For Rent” and anyone interested should contact “Harvey.” I knew Tony Amato,  who ran the tiny opera company,  had closed the place in 2009 following the death of his wife Sally,  who made all the costumes. But the rent sign brought me up short. Back in the early to middle 1990’s I used to come to the Amato a lot,  not necessarily because I am such a big opera fan,  which,  sadly (since many people seem to get so much pleasure out of it)  I am not. I came here because my oldest daughter,  Rae,  often performed in the chorus which Tony loved to stock with nine and ten year olds. Rae was in half a dozen Verdi operas and several others. It was always fun to see her in tiny costumes,  and watch her belt out the Italian,  right along with Tony,  who always sang along as he directed the show.

So now this little place was gone.  I stopped to take a picture of the front of the storefront which still bore the “Amato Opera” sign written in what appeared to be some Wild West font. I sent the photo via cell phone to Rae,  who is now 27 and lives in New Orleans,  Louisiana.  She texted me back: “that really sucks.  Now I am really bummed out.” The tone of her text,  if a text can be said to have a tone,  seemed genuinely distressed. This made me regret sending it. But as I wrote back,  in an unrestrained fit of Polonius-ness that “time is ruthless,” as if she doesn’t know that already. The whole thing was pretty depressing but some irony leavened the situation when one of those traveling tourist buses drove by and stopped to allow those who cared  to snap pictures of the former CBGB’s (now a clothing store) which  was once located only a couple of doors down from Tony Amato’s opera house.

another day, another bunch of loonies–Westboro comes to Brooklyn

October 13, 2010

In today’s punch-drunk political climate,  a Paladino moment  can break out at any time.  Such was the case the other day on Ocean Parkway as Dov Hikind,  the notoriously hotheaded Brooklyn state assemblyman broke through a police barrier and appeared to lurch toward  one Shirley Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps,  a middle-aged woman  wrapped in both an American and Israeli flag which she didn’t mind blowing her nose into,  claimed to be doing nothing more than exercising her First Amendment rights, which included holding up signs saying “Thank God For 9/11” and “Your Rabbi Is a Whore.”

“You’re the whore,” shouted the steaming  Hikind,  who in his best Paladinoese, added “just be careful the rest of your day in Brooklyn” as he was led away by a bevy of police officers.

“The truth drives these rebels against God to act like wild dogs,  I love to watch them lose it,” said Ms. Phelps, the Ma Barker-like leader of clannish,  Topeka,  Kansas-based church,  with a dentition challenged grin.  Most famous for showing up to “celebrate” at funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan brandishing mind-bendingly offensive signs like “God Hates Fags”(it is their contention that the Lord is actively allowing the soldiers to be killed in retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality),  the Westboro Baptists,  whose congregation consists primarily of the extended Phelps family,  was in front of the Kensington Chabad House in the heavily Hasidic section of Ocean Parkway to,  in the words of Ms. Phelps,  “to remind these forgetful Jews that they killed their savior and that they are going to Hell for it.”

This message was not getting much traction with the Chabadniks,  most of whom have never read a page of the New Testament and believe that the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson,  not Jesus Christ,  is the Messiah.  Most of the Lubachvitchers on the scene appeared more interested in asking neighborhood visitors to put on t’fillin, the leather phylacteries they claimed would ward off “non-Jewish enemies,” than debating whether  or not Barack Obama was the anti-Christ. The counter-Westboro message was mostly advanced by a contingent of protesters who screamed increasingly obscene remarks from behind a police barrier. This went on for about a half hour until the seven members of the Church got into their mini-van,  cut across three lanes of traffic on Ocean Parkway and drove to a yeshiva on Avenue I where they again waved their signs.

So it was another day in the vast American melting pot,  one more,  however  cartoonish, opportunity to take mournful stock of where  we have come to. This is interesting since Fred Phelps,  the founder and driving force of the Westboro Baptists,  was once a civil rights lawyer who once won a suit against the Topeka School Board for providing inferior education to black students,  in violation of landmark Brown v. the Bd. Of Ed. decision. How one gets from there to God Hates Fags is something perhaps historians of our fractious age will be able to ascertain.