Working on my proposed book for Routledge on French theater and India in the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the plays is written during the Revolution (1798, during the Second Directory), during a time when Napoleon was not just ascendant, but feared by many to be on the verge of taking over the Revolution. Which he did, a year later, but when this print was made, early in 1798, the French were preparing to invade England. No shortage of satirical prints about Bonaparte which I have been searching through online, hoping to find one to use in the chapter. So here are a few that I have dug up so far...
The latest fashion during the Directory - the "golden youths" were the dandies of the time. After the puritanical Reign of Terror and Robespierre, the Directory, not-quite-as-authoritarian and more conservative, oddly enough was more lax socially, with the result that the reigning fashions among women saw dresses in ancient Greek or Roman styles, often see through. And as Victorian prudery was still decades away, and Rousseauean prudery was now dead, people were having sex all over the place. Napoleon's sister was notoriously promiscuous, and was caught on at least a couple of occasions going at it behind a screen or some bushes at a party with a man she just met.
... of the American people. As Trump pushes this country further towards the precipice - one of his own creating - we all need to reflect on what brought us to the point where 150,000 + Americans have died, and this sad, sad figure is only increasing every day. Extra unemployment benefits are ending for millions of Americans; small business loans expiring as well; a vaccine is a long ways away, and things look to get a lot worse before they get any better.... Yet there is a large segment of the US which still supports this incompetent buffoon named Trump, just proving what HL Mencken wrote almost 100 years ago.
What is it about the US that seems to encourage a large chunk of the population to champion stupidity? They do it over and over - from conspiracy theories to accusing anyone on the left of being "commies" or "sheeple." Its an honest, open question - I really don't have an answer, though I think a certain xenophobia is still alive in parts of our country, as well as a kind of nativist naivete.
What's frightening though is that Trump could still get re-elected. And if he doesn't win, he could contest the election, or simply refuse to go. I hate to say it, but my vibe is if you disliked 2020, that 2021 might not be that much better.
I ventured over to SF for a visit for really the first time since the beginning of March - the ninth to be exact. I remember that night as we dined at Zuni Cafe, and already the fear of CV-19 had driven most of the clientele away, on what should have been a busy Saturday night.
But today at the Aquatic Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, and driving by Ocean Beach, I noticed one striking thing: in the middle of the first wave of CV-19, I would estimate that over 80% of people outside, despite being in fairly crowded areas, were not only not wearing a face mask, I did not see them carrying them. Who has made this decision en masse that the epidemic is over, that business is as before, and that precautions are not necessary? Was there just some sort of mass decision - "well, that's it, safe to go out again" ?
Business will never be as before, at least not for a number of years.
Infections are on the upswing precisely because of this non-scientific, irrational attitude. You might have decided its over, but the virus doesn't engage in social discourse. It looks for openings, and spreads effectively and remorselessly. Here's a photo from the Aquatic Park:
How many masks do you see here?
Two - dude on the white bench with the bike, and the woman to his right (I think). But besides them, 24 people without masks.
We are so fucked if this is really how the general population is going to go back out into the world. Beaches - and by the way breaking surf is a fantastic aerosolizer, meaning that it does a great job at spreading particles much farther through the air - will become the new virus hot spots.
It's summer - don't let your guard down. Governor Newsom has mandated that masks be worn at all times outside now. I guess the 24 people in the picture above are too busy posting selfies on Instagram to bother checking in on the news.
If there is any Russian novel that succeeds in claiming this title, it would be Grossman's "'Life and Fate," and coming in at something like 2/3s the length of Tolstoy's epic (I read it maybe 20 years ago and recall it being close to 1500 pages, but I could be wrong). It has the sweep, and the philosophizing by the author upon the events portrayed, and has the additional pull of containing what amounts to first-hand accounts - his own - as he served as a journalist during WWII on the Soviet front lines, and was a witness to the Battle of Stalingrad, and was also the first journalist to write about the Nazi death camps as he was with troops who liberated Treblinka in 1944, having earlier written about Nazi atrocities in Ukraine and Poland.
A remarkable achievement, and one of those novels you wish that didn't finish. And what is remarkable also is that Grossman hoped that it would be published - while not openly anti-Stalinist, he is critical of the Soviets during Stalin's regime, and not just during the purges, yet toes the line carefully in showing Stalin to be human also, in resurrecting Viktor Shtrum from almost being exiled from the Soviet atomic program, and with one phone call, re-instating him - at a price.
The passages dealing with the rounding up of Jews from Russia and Ukraine, transporting them by cattle cars to Auschwitz, and then sending these poor souls to the gas chambers are some of the most powerful writing out there: difficult to read, powerfully memorable and heart-wrenching. Also powerful is the famous battle during the Battle of Stalingrad for House 6, and the "renegade" defenders led by Grekov.
Now I have to get back to the series, which has compacted many elements of the novel - Tolya is now part of the small band of soldiers in House 6, for example - but aside from Viktor, seems to have excised Jews from the little screen, which in "Life and Fate," is ripping the heart out of the story.
About 1/3 of the way through the novel of the same name by Vassily Grossman, and it is epic yet personal, touching and brutal, so very Russian (and Soviet) and as a writer humbling to see something so masterfully composed, with such a vast cast of characters, beautifully woven together. I was watching the 2012 Russian series based on the novel - which is fantastic - but stopped after about Episode Eight to catch up with the novel. Now I will finish the novel first, then the series, as already I can see a serious discrepancy between the novel and the series, in that the series has completely omitted what is perhaps the most important narrative - beside Stalingrad and the extended Shtrum family - the Berdyichev ghetto and the sections of the book up to the point where I am at dealing with the Nazi death camps, the collaborators, the treatment of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia by both Nazis and Russians/Ukrainians and their ilk. And that is a big omission. But I will withhold judgement until I finish novel and film.
But the novel is enthralling, but tough to read at times, as it evokes human suffering in war and in prison camps with clarity cleansed of sentimentality.
... shut the fuck up.
We know he's a stoned dickhead, a genius at tech and organizing and planning and a lot of things (I won't say everything as clearly he surrounds himself with bright and capable people - that's part of being a CEO) involved with running a large, sophisticated, highly complex corporation that sends stuff into space and designs super-sleek but really boring electric cars.
We get that. Its human beings that he sucks at. Or rather, being human.
Like Ayn Rand, he would rather send the little man and women - especially those he pays - to their graves than suffer corporate losses. And like Rand, he feels that hubris conquers all, that the individual Nietzschean will to greatness is proof of superiority.
First of all, he's a car manufacturer. And for some reason I don't see Ford and GM CEOs screaming for their individual rights to re-open, and they employ far more people, make more vehicles, and sell more of them to a more diverse public. Second of all, Tesla is just pretty much still a boutique car for Silicon Valley engineers and their spouses, the automotive equivalent of a Gucci handbag.
Now he has Valley CEOs agitating for their god-given right to make money and put the little people back in their place - the work place. There's some irony that this is all transpiring on May 1st, but I doubt that the CEOs would know or notice.
And one last note on hubris , and this spurred by an article in the SFGate on Musk and his fellow Silicon Valley CEOs urging people to get off their lazy asses and get back to work. An investor/entrepreneur named Balaji Srinivasan (wasn't he involved in Theranos?) says government is incapable of finding a vaccine for COVID. He compared it to the Manhattan Project, but said it would become the "Palo Alto" Project due to - I guess because he didn't state why, it was just implied - the sheer, ineluctable brilliance of the Valley.
Only one problem - he doesn't actually do anything. He just gives people money, and then markets it. And already today, in The Guardian, two articles that prove him wrong, plus recent news that Oxford (not located in Silicon Valley but in Oxfordshire) may be within months of developing a vaccine. One article on how the City of SF is recruiting 10,000 tracers to map the virus, and another article on how the Federal government's germ warfare research unit has lead to an early COVID-19 test.
Both examples of how government has the capability to scale-up quickly in a way that a company cannot, and how it can draw upon decades of expertise in areas that private businesses simply don't have the same resources, personnel, or mental approach, as the government is used to the idea of decades of money spent on research that is not tied to monetary returns. And Srinivasan points out another huge problem with Silicon Valley - snake oil salesman who are out of their depth.
COVID-19 has utterly turned our world upside down and inside out in a matter of months, and there is no guarantee or clear idea when this will end, or if it will. One thing is clear: the economic downside is monumental, perhaps as bad as the Great Depression, with tens of millions losing jobs in the US, businesses going bankrupt: as a point of reference, many estimate that up to 40% or more of restaurants will cease to exist. Neiman Marcus just filed for bankruptcy; the service sector and in-person retail sectors will be devastated. Not everything can move online. Bright spots? Healthcare, for all the wrong reasons. Online infrastructure and sales: stupid apps, not so much. Lyft and Uber, sayonara ....
But the most galling and illustrative news - I do use Yahoo as a home page so there is more of a focus on the ridiculous rather than the sublime - was that Bill Gates and his wife bought a new palace on the coast in Del Mar (near San Diego) for 43 million greenbacks. Think about that. While most of the US is shedding jobs, trying to get their handout from the Feds, doing what they can to delay rent payments and mortgage payments, trying to get through state inefficiency to claim UI, Gates is apparently utterly tone-deaf. While we all, the other 98%, reel from the shit storm that life has thrust into our faces, he plonks down an obscene amount of money for a new house.
Maybe he should consider not buying the house, and giving the money instead to medical clinics, hospitals, and under-served communities who need to survive.
And here we have the modern predicament of American capitalism revealed by a tiny virus: we have become so utterly inhuman in our economic practices. But also with the shutdown around the world, and the quasi-cessation of the use of fossil fuels, what has happened? Wildlife has re-appeared. Cities in the Punjab that haven't seen the Himalaya in 30 years suddenly see them every day. Four times the usual amount of bears are prowling Yosemite Valley. The shut down is good for nature - it sucks for people.
These are just random thoughts at 1AM. But when a billionaire decides its a good time to plonk down $43,000,000 when most people are losing jobs, its a sign that our society in the US suffers from its own infections.
Somehow, these same four walls
Metaphorically speaking, of course
Don’t look so
bad after 18 days.
Old acquaintances speak from the shelves,
A polyphony of voices.
Serigraphs, framed, five of them.
Big Sur coastline etched behind
skeletal branches, olive dusty oaks
speckled against tawny mid-summer
Gnarled eucalyptus, hallucinogenic
Tear-drop swirling fog, a crane in profile, balanced on a
Japanese watercolor, and
Burnished oak armoire, our little family
Its fourth generation.
But the air now possesses
An extra, palpable dimension
Blow with the wind,
Our world connected by both
The idea of the virulent
And its reality
Moving across the world at
The world has grown quiet.
I used to, on Sunday evenings when
Admiring the brown East Bay Hills turning
Orange in the setting sun, be able to
See half-a-dozen big airliners, landing
Lights on, queued up at ten thousand feet
For arrival at SFO
But this evening, clouds clearing, nary
A plane in sight.
Wild turkeys strut through
Downtown parking lots, wild pigs
Make the rounds through suburban streets,
Streaming services and Clorox
Stock rake it in.
But where will we be
In two weeks?
Enter a new era,
If we are still here to
Poor Francis Fukuyama. He, and other theorists such as Slavo Zizek who voiced the idea that, with the triumph of the internet and virtual reality, with the supremacy of capitalism and the death of communism, history had ceased, and we had entered a new continuum.
What a load. Most of us were not fooled, however; the flaws in the argument were so obvious as to beg the question "how could anyone make these assertions to begin with?"
And now corona-virus, on top of global warming, a global refugee crisis, and a world-wide resurgence of right-wing populism.
I'd say history is back and with a vengeance. Hope we are still all around in a few months to talk about this all with a sense of relief, rather than apprehension that far worse is just around the corner.
Rereading two classics - "The Brothers Karamazov," in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and out of necessity, Camus' "The Plague" in the Gilbert translation (would read it in the original but don't have it), and there has been an odd impression left by our current coronavirus contagion upon this reader's experience. The first - following Dmitri's arrest, the district commissioner of police Mikhail Makarovich Makarov is introduced into the story, and it is mentioned that "his house was never without guests." My initial reaction was the thought that this was a very unsafe situation, reading social distancing dictates into fiction transpiring some 135 years ago ....
Then the Camus novel. So much of the initial description of Oran rings true with Fremont, where I live in the Bay Area, or many other of the surrounding suburbs. The town he describes "has a smug, placid air," ... "[o]ur citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce." Not that this is so uncommon, as Camus notes, but he identifies other kinds of cities and towns, "where people have now and again an inkling of something different. In general, it doesn't change their lives. Still they have an intimation ... Oran [read Fremont], however, seems to be a town without intimations." And finally "all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town's appearance and life in it ... Oran ends by seeming restful, and after a while, you go complacently to sleep there." Oran was around the same size as Fremont when Camus published "La peste" in 1947, around 220,000, so calling it a town reflects Camus' dissatisfaction with the city's stultifying provincialism, a feeling many would identify with Fremont, despite its ballyhooed multicultural demographic make-up, its pretty much just a large bedroom with attached bank accounts, a barrage of Teslas with personalized plates, mediocre restaurants (now empty - well those complying with the stay-at-home orders from our governor), and not one cultural institution of note. And now our own plague has cometh.