Sunday, February 28, 2010

Universal Health and the Global Economy

Everyone weighs in on the health care debate--it's became a national pastime--so why not massage it some more?  
My take on the problem is not unique, but I do notice that almost nowhere in the media are the key underlying--and crucial--issues really being addressed. The problem is expressed in what I take to be three major areas:  
1 Budgetary constraints
2 Cost of services
3 Conflicting priorities
They're interdependent, of course, and can't be addressed discretely apart from one another. But it's helpful, I think, to point out some obvious facts, and to try to see the dilemma in a non-partisan way. 
First, universal health care is a relatively new phenomenon. It's been around for a little less than a century, though in its present forms it's only been around for a few decades.  

Blue = Single payer universal health care
Green = Public universal health care through other means
Grey = No universal health care 

There are basically two issues with universal care: Level of care, and degree of inclusion. Also, health care availability and quality varies according to context: Universal care in an "undeveloped" country is really no care at all. Quality care involves expense: Research, modern sophisticated technologies of treatment, comprehensive training and certification and licensing of providers and facilities--these are all expensive things. Modern medicine is a highly developed estate. In 1900, for instance, medical "care" was many times simpler and less effective than it is today, and was as a consequence much, much cheaper.
Second, there's been a geometric increase in world population since 1900. It's quadrupled, approaching 7 billion people in 2010. The world's actual resources haven't grown by a single molecule in that century; what that means in real human terms is that the world is actually over four times poorer, on a per capita basis than it was in 1900, because that many more individuals now depend upon the earth's bounty, and the rate by which we're using it has increased geometrically as well. Everyone knows this growth rate is unsustainable, but almost no one talks about it publicly. "We'll find new ways of addressing these problems, science will make advances, the growth rate will naturally moderate," and so on. The cost to feed, cloth, shelter, employ and care for each human individual is a staggering burden on the planet. 
The price tag attached to every person's long-term care, severe fatal or chronic disease or malady, given the contemporary approach to treatments, is far, far beyond society's resources to afford. If, for instance, we sought to deliver sophisticated, comprehensive medical care to each individual in the world today, there not only would be no money left for anything else, the world's economy would crumble under that weight. Acknowledging this fact is the first step in realistically addressing any so-called "solutions" to the world health crisis. 
It's generally acknowledged that the Third World's health problems won't be solved, can't be solved, until or unless its burgeoning population can first be brought under control. Conquering infant mortality, and extending life-expectancy have been wondrous accomplishments on one level, but the resulting success of human increase is the flip-side of the coin of our advance as a species. Successfully overcoming the natural curtailments of our numbers, has meant that we've rapidly accelerated our exploitation of the world's resources to meet the extraordinary demands placed upon it. The demand for health care--like the demand for food, materials for shelter and textile, and energy--has risen far faster than our actual ability to meet that demand, and today it is far beyond anyone's wildest ambitions. 
Probably the main reason that national health systems have "worked" in certain countries, is that those economies have not been overburdened by other priorities, specifically military expenditures. As a share of national product and expense, universal coverage easily trumps every other priority. Indeed, there are those who believe that the national health model has only been a brief open window of opportunity, and that eventually these systems, as popular as they may have seemed up to now, are destined either to fail, or to result in compromised delivery.   
To take an example:  If, say, the world were to have limited its use of petroleum to levels that were typical in 1935, the "horizon" of world petroleum reserves would probably have been 3-5 centuries. Today, with all known reserves, and at the steeply accelerating rates of consumption, it's unlikely that oil, as a predominant source of energy, will last much beyond the current century, at which point it will already be running out.
Are there sufficient possible "economies" of scale or application that could stem the increase in medical care costs in the short term? Even if we limit the discussion to the "civilized" economies of the West, it's unlikely that this will ever happen. Either the quality of care will decrease, or the numbers of those whom society deems eligible for care will decrease--or both. We're already seeing that insurance companies are "dumping" policy-holders in order to control costs. There's a troubling margin in for-profit insurance companies, but this is merely a footnote to the problem. The government already has shaken the society down: Need-based health care has been around for half a century, in the form of Medicaid, for instance. The amount of confiscated capital in the health insurance industry is just a tiny fraction of what it would cost to provide real universal comprehensive care. This is what the Republicans are fighting against: If our country opts to "entitle" all the uninsured and underinsured populations today, eventually the cost will far outdistance our ability to pay for it. Indeed, as history has shown, any publicly underwritten health policy has had the effect of driving up costs rapidly. This is what conservatives mean when they talk about capital transfers or confiscations: If the bottom 25% of the population, in terms of income, becomes lawfully entitled to comprehensive federally funded ("free") health coverage, the burden of that expense will inevitably fall, at least to a proportional degree, upon the rich and the corporations. The medical industries could effectively starve the Federal and State budgets of the entire nation in the long run; and in the short run, they would shoulder aside virtually every other budget priority, including military and defense spending.   
Also, in the short term, budgetary priorities are showing just how meager the fruits of our economy will appear, once we start measuring them against the theoretical promise of universal coverage. During the Bush II Administration, money that might have been devoted to funding universal coverage was spent instead on foreign military adventures, and awarding tax breaks to the rich and the corporations. We have spent a trillion dollars on these wars since 9/11, a dead loss to the American taxpayer, since our petroleum interests, which might have been the only sensible reason for our Iraq invasion, came to nothing: The Chinese have been securing oil leases all over the world, without firing a shot. 
True estimates of the eventual cost of universal coverage, under our highly sophisticated and advanced medical care system in America, are staggering. Ten trillion dollars by 2015? More! The fight over what burdens this will place on our Federal budget will get bloodier as time goes on. Why are the Republicans so partisan about holding the line against universal coverage? Because they realize that as the middle class shrinks--as America loses more jobs, and as its economy declines in real terms compared to China, India, etc.--the burden of taxation will fall increasingly upon their constituencies (the rich, the business interests, and foreign debt holders). What is happening, today, is that China and Arabia are lending America the money to run its government programs. Each new obligation we add to the burden means America--its economy--becomes that much more dependent upon the pleasure of the holders of our paper. At some point, too, America's position as the primary consumer of commodities begins to decline; when the Chinese and Indians realize they have no reason to prop up a failing giant, will they have any reason not to call in those obligations, or to stop lending to us altogether? On balance, then, our declining economy will mean that our ability to care for our own population will also decline. In several senses, Americans have been living on borrowed time over the last three decades. Nearly every indicator points to a lower standard of living for the great majority; and that includes health care, as well. Rather than "controlling health care costs" we will end up choosing whom to exclude, whom to privilege. The criteria for that will inevitably be cost. The marketplace ultimately will decide.     
Debt obligations aren't open-ended. Faith in institutions, no matter how "big"--does have limits. Our Federal government will never be "too big to fail." What is the tipping point at which our ability to "sell" our debt becomes untenable? When do "U.S. Bonds" get reduced to "junk status"? When unemployment rises to 20%? When we close our public schools? When we stand down our uniformed forces? How far are we from a general national collapse, based on the amount of debt we seemed determined to take on? Can you think of any reason why China--probably the most selfish nation in the world today--would be inclined to "help" America if we fell into a deep 1930's style depression? The only argument I've ever heard is that they "depend to an inordinate degree" upon American markets for their goods. But if that market were to dry up, what then?
The world's resource balance is not open-ended. Our ability to provide comprehensive health care isn't either. The ultimate rebalance against the world's ability to provide for its excess population will result in human suffering on a frightening scale. Nationally, we can look elsewhere with remorse upon the millions of humans who suffer from hunger, disease, and early miserable death. Because we refuse to control our populations, this is the unavoidable consequence; the fact that it's happening "elsewhere" allows us the comfortable complacency of believing that there don't have to be any losers, that it's not a zero sum game. Expressed in terms of health coverage, it may appear as an illusion of priorities--if only we could be smarter about allocation, everyone could be saved. But the hierarchy of priorities--the bell-curve of who gets what, across the spectrum of nations and economies--will eventually involve choices. 
But there won't be any good choices.  


Addendum 3/3/10

I wish I believed that the government could organize and administer health care, while controlling costs. The government system model is being tried in several countries presently, but the jury is still out on how successful those models will continue to perform in the long term. But the point of my post isn't to set up a dialectic between "private" and "public" administration of coverage. My purpose is much larger, and may be pointlessly conceptual.  
To restate: The earth's population has literally outrun the resources (both natural and "human") needed to support it. That shortfall notably includes medical care. Our view of American health care seems to be controlled by a couple of spurious assumptions: 1) That it would be possible, given the available resources, to deliver health care to every American, without somehow compromising every other budgetary priority, and 2) The amount of "profit" to be derived from any "for profit" social insurance system provides enough excess margin to make up for any shortfall in the cost of running a universal system.  
If we extend the context to include the vast numbers of uncovered individuals in the so-called Third World, it becomes clear that global universal health coverage is truly unattainable. With the growth of the so-called "global economy" we're seeing that our traditional American historical insulation from other participants in the world economy is evaporating: The world economy truly is a zero sum game. Everyone can't be rich--and as population grows, the numbers of those who stand to be excluded grows, not just in terms of separate nations, but in terms of discrete classes of patrons.  
America has a capitalist economy. Socialistic revisions of that system have been made, which moderate certain of its more destructive effects. It may well be that the American health insurance industry could be nationalized. That would allow us to claim that we had universal coverage, but it wouldn't generate more revenue. If we went on a pay-as-you-go basis, the budgetary compromises would end up looking exactly like the "arbitrary" measures private insurance companies engage in, i.e., some treatments, and some individuals would end up being deferred, or denied.  
The idea that the only thing standing between the present situation, and a fully functioning universal health care system, is the elimination of the profit motive, is a serious delusion. What we could end up with would be a two-tiered system in which the rich would still acquire high-level treatment, while everyone else would be thrown into a third-rate system with compromised quality all down the line, because the cost to insure and treat the bottom 25% would easily drag the rest of the population down.  
In my view, the real culprit in all this is the decline of the American middle class, with the resulting decline in real per capita income, occurring at just the moment in our history when health care costs are climbing rapidly.  
Take the auto industry. America's on the verge of losing all automobile production to other national economies. The loss of that capital--and the fruit of that capitalization--is staggering. Millions and millions of jobs lost, buying power gone, and all the things which that capital once afforded--including good health care policies.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Matter of Taste - How We Sense Flavor

Like most people, I think I took the phenomenon of taste for granted for most of the first half of my life. As a child, growing up in a household comprised of two Midwestern parents who'd never been very adventurous in their eating habits, I tended to regard spicy or unusual flavors with suspicion, and even revulsion. There were certain foods--and food flavors--which I found intolerable! My stepfather, who had traveled around the world while working as a deck-hand in the merchant shipping business during the 1920's, had developed a strong distaste for highly spiced foods, especially garlic and peppers. My mother had grown up in a poor household during the Depression, and, like many of her generation, welcomed the convenience food revolution of the 1950's, preferring canned and frozen food alternatives to fresh. For my part, I had a severely restricted range of acceptable flavors, and was usually unable to consume certain foods or flavors. I can recall distinctly being unable to eat dairy cream, spinach, asparagus, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, fruitcake, peppers, avocado, liver, fish, creamed corn, beets, artichokes, and several other things which I can't recall at the moment.
I remember distinctly being unable to eat Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, and being punished by being made to sit in front of the bowl at the table for hours after meal-time, forbidden to play, until I "ate my lunch." Both the flavor and the texture of mushrooms literally made me spontaneously retch (a horrible sensation). My parents somehow thought my resistance was deliberate, and irrational, and that by "forcing" me to eat the offending food, I would "get over" my revulsion. My reaction to certain flavors and textures in foods was thought to be a kind of immaturity, or childish unreasonableness, in refusing to "try new things" or to "act more grown up" about eating. Like most kids, I loved sweets, and wanted my foods to be bland and predictably consistent in texture or sensation. I liked hamburger and mashed potato, ice cream and cookies, chocolate milk and sliced apples, chicken legs and watermelon. My parents would be shocked, I imagine, to learn how broad and cosmopolitan my tastes have become as an adult--surprised, and perhaps even vindicated in their campaign to enhance my childhood appetite.      
But it turns out that my behavior in childhood was completely normal. Research into the behavior of tasting has shown that children generally have much more sensitive--though much less sophisticated--taste than adults generally do. As people age, their taste sensitivity changes, growing less keen. Also, those who smoke or consume alcohol in large amounts, or have other environmental or vocational exposures or stresses, may also lose taste sensitivity. Both of my parents, for instance, smoked heavily, so it's quite likely that when they ate cream of mushroom soup, it didn't have nearly as intense a flavor as it did to my immature taste buds. They were literally experiencing something different than I was, or at least experiencing it differently. Or were they?
Most people are familiar with the general knowledge that human taste is composed simply of four simple flavor sensations: Sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Certain other secondary sensations have been associated with piquancy and savoriness, but these may simply be another sensation such as heat or slipperiness, i.e., not true "flavors." Thinking about these childhood memories got me wondering: How the devil does taste work, and how do people feel so many contradictory and complex sensations about food? Food is cultural, taste is a physiological process describable in purely scientific terms, but where do these separate spheres of apprehension and empirical data intersect?       
It turns out that we perceive the sensation of taste through the interaction of certain chemicals which are present in what we eat, with taste receptors on our tongue--the "taste buds." At the molecular level, what this means is that the chemical structure of taste-producing substances actually comes into structural interaction with the "fungiform papillae" of the buds, producing the "sensation" of a certain flavor which is then transmitted to the brain through the nerve tree--incredibly, then taste is actually a physical process like two sets of Tinker Toy structures mating! But taste isn't simply the physical inter-reaction perceived by the tongue. Taste involves the olfactory sense (smell) as well. Attempts to categorize the range of smells apparently hasn't yet been conclusively accomplished--I read somewhere that there are "eight distinctly different" types of odor, any combination of which might produce a myriad of variations of smell(s). When we eat something, we are also simultaneously smelling it, so taste is a combination of both tasting and smelling, working together to produce a complex array of effects. 
How do we describe flavors? Some people seem much more sensitive to taste and smell, and still others seem to possess a highly sophisticated aptitude in perceiving and describing such sensations. There are, in fact, so-called "super taster" people, whose sensitivity to taste and/or smell is many times finer and more intense than normal. Human animals, as a matter of fact, are fairly low on the scale of smell sense compared to some other creatures. 
The ability to describe smells with a fine sense of distinction has always intrigued me. My wife, for instance, has a much greater ability to describe the flavors of a given substance, than I do. I don't mean she tastes more different things, just that the separate flavors seem to summon up their descriptive signifiers more readily in her brain than in mine, or that she is able to sort them into hierarchies more easily than I can. Is this something one is born with, or is it a learned ability?  Probably both. 
As a single malt scotch, and wine and beer, connoisseur, I am frequently reading taste descriptions. I often find these quite ingenious, and usually accurate, though how I react to a certain described flavor often differs from the sentiment of another taster. Single malt scotch taste descriptives may include such unlikely components as "leathery," "charcoal," "smashed bugs," "woody," "soapy," "phenolic," "fresh mown hay," "slaty," "briny," "buttery," "peppery," "floral," and so forth. Put all the fruit and vegetable flavors into this mix and shake it vigorously. What exactly do I taste when I sip a little Kistler Chardonnay, or some 16 year Lagavulin, or some Orval Trappist Ale? A description for a complex single malt may say something like "nice forward warmth, strong caramel, burnt almond with orange zest, and a lingering Crackerjax evanescence." These descriptions sometimes seem like little poems, tiny epiphanic moments--which seems perfectly appropriate. Tasting for pleasure, or curiosity, after all, is one of life's great delights, and deserves to be appreciated just as any other physical or mental sensation which brings enjoyment.
I just wish I were more adept at identifying and describing the flavors I sense in food and drink. Some people can take one bite of something and immediately describe the four or five spice components which are present. Me? I'm lucky if I can name more than one!                 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Louis Simpson - of the War Generation - A Survivor [Part II]

Louis Simpson, now at age 86, is one of the last survivors of the generation of poets who saw military service in WWII, and lived to tell the tale during the post-War boom, when polite, polished versifying was still the honored approach to literary distinction and notoriety. He shared, with Anthony Hecht and Karl Shapiro and Delmore Schwartz, a Jewish heritage which both sharpened his sense of ethnic peril, and provided a somewhat uncharacteristic (for American poets) cosmopolitan sense of European cultural connection. As a Jewish American poet, Simpson enjoyed a sort of spiritual dual citizenship which enabled him to view American cultural paradigms from a position both in- and outside of context, not unlike that of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Elia Kazan.* 
This sense of the alienated insider is in many respects Simpson's saving grace; his best work, collected in his Pulitzer Prize winning At the End of the Open Road [Wesleyan: 1963], uses the impression(-ism) of disorientation--common to many veterans of the War, as a rhetorical platform to criticize cultural excess and embarrassment, while re-stating the terms of the multi-cultural diaspora which all Americans share. As a Jew, he is both a part of, and apart from, the history of American literature: His thematic componants include both Walt Whitman and Sholom Aleichem, Ellis Island and The Golden Gate. What this suggests in concrete terms is a divided allegiance, between, on the one hand, the intellectual sophistication the New Critics, the Fugitives, etc.--which would be expressed as a contempt and impatience with the Beats, European New Wave Cinema, etc.--and a pragmatic belief in the social conscience of the 1930's, a populist attachment to middle class values, equality and opportunity, on the other. That these apparently somewhat incompatible tendencies might somehow coexist without conflict is perhaps the central underlying preoccupation of his work.                           
The "end of the open road" for Simpson was, in effect, a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960's. California was "the end" of the continent, and the last outpost of the symbolic "westering" escape and exile of Americans from the "old world" of Europe. Simpson saw it as the climax, the epicenter of a sort of final testing of American dreams and promises, not least (one supposes) his own. 
In order to understand the mood of the time in which this book was written, it's necessary to suspend one's sense of the continuity of history. This suspension is not unlike the so-called "suspension of disbelief" which readers (or audiences) are asked to perform whenever they read a piece of fiction, or view a dramatic action. We tend to think of history that's far enough away from us to be viewed with disinterest as having a fixed, finished (one size fits all) quality. But the cultural milieu is rarely that simple, and there are usually at least five ways of looking at any period in history, picking out this set of facts, or that sequence of events, to demonstrate whichever point of view the speaker, or writer, wishes to emphasize. Popular accounts tell us that the 1960's represented a revolt of the younger generation against the staid capitulation of their middle-class forbears, a revolt which set the stage for a whole new revanchment of policy and direction, moving into the decades of the Seventies and Eighties. In one sense, this was a return to the principles and spirit of the 1930's. The Depression had unleashed a powerful backlash of the majority in America and Western Europe, against the excesses of big capital and uncontrolled industrial exploitation. World War II, and the subsequent economic prosperity of the 1950's, had driven this populist sentiment underground, and--especially during the McCarthy Era--had brought about a strong reactionary backlash against the American Left, fueled by the Cold War, accompanied by a lingering guilt over the failure of socialism in Russia. It seemed, circa 1960, as if a generational split along these lines was taking place. In politics, philosophy and the arts, there were harbingers of another wave of liberality. Figures like Simpson--a war veteran and graduate of Columbia (MA and PhD)--tended to see the world in terms of a conflict between order and disorder, developed versus undeveloped, raw and cooked. 
Thus he accepted the formalist, academic poetics of his day, and tried to interpret, digest and incorporate events unfolding around him in terms of dilemma and resolution. 
        American Poetry
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human. 
Simpson's reaction to the Whitmanic embrace of the limitless experience of America's vast variety implies that the poet must sacrifice his "humanity" in order to hold such conflicting elements. Such engorgement will transform, even pollute, the mind of an artist. Indeed, Simpson, who was a fellow undergraduate student with Allen Ginsberg at Columbia, published a parody of Howl--
I saw the best minds of my generation
Reading their poems to Vassar girls,
Being interviewed by Mademoiselle.
Having their publicity handled by professionals.
When can I go into an editorial office
And have my stuff published because I'm weird?
I could go on writing like this forever...
At the End of the Open Road is bracketed by two poems addressed to the state of America towards the end of the 20th Century, and they define, for Simpson, his place at this watershed moment in his career, as well as the state of the union at that point in history, perched on the continent's edge, in California--
                      In California
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.

There once was an epical clatter--
Voices and banjos, Tennessee, Ohio,
Rising like incense in the sight of heaven.
Today, there is an angel in the gate.

Lie back, Walt Whitman,
There, on the fabulous raft with the King and the Duke!
For the white row of the Marina
Faces the Rock. Turn round the wagons here.

Lie back! We cannot bear
The stars any more, those infinite spaces.
Let the realtors divide the mountain,
For they have already subdivided the valley.

Rectangular city blocks astonished
Herodotus in Babylon,
Cortez in Tenochtitlan,
And here's the same old city-planner, death.

We cannot turn or stay.
For though we sleep, and let the reins fall slack,
The great cloud-wagons move
Onward still, dreaming of a Pacific. 
This is, outwardly, comic writing, bald and sheepish, but it sets the tone for the entire collection. Simpson portrays himself as an ambassador from the Eastern establishment--his "dark New York face"--and regards California as part playground, part exploited paradise. The Eastern seabord was once the promised land for generations of European immigrants, but California is like a never-never land of empty dreams, except our dreams keep on going like "cloud wagons" sailing West toward the orient. Our arrival doesn't quench the wanderlust that seduced our forefathers across the vast continent, it merely stirs more ambition, more anxiety. 
In the concluding poem of the book, "Lines Written Near San Francisco," Simpson closes the intimations laid down at the beginning, with a distillation of the separate observations and images he has laid out--in Part 3--
Every night, at the end of America
We taste our wine, looking at the Pacific.
How sad it is, the end of America!
While we were waiting for the land
They'd finished it--with gas drums
On the hilltops, cheap housing in the valleys
Where lives and mean and wretched.
But the banks thrive and the realtors
Rejoice--they have their America.
Still, there is something unsettled in the air.
Out there on the Pacific
There's no America but the Marines.
Whitman was wrong about the People,
But right about himself. The land is within.
At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.
Though mad Columbus follows the sun
Into the sea, we cannot follow.
We must remain, to serve the returning sun,
And to set tables for death.
For we are colonists of Death--
Not, as some think, of the English,
And we are preparing thrones for him to sit,
Poems to read, and beds
In which it may please him to rest.
This is the land
The pioneers looked for, shading their eyes
Against the sun--a murmur of serious life.
But the ending seems so tame! "A murmur of serious life." Whatever could he mean? The restless journey, begun 500 years ago in Southern Europe, to discover a new route to the fabled Indies, the entire arc of our efforts and investigations, ends here, on the California coast, facing the seeming endless expanse of the Pacific. Unless, by "serious," we are meant to understand our burden to the given, to the limit of our fantasy, our striving--a single earth, one humanity, no escapes, no El Dorado, no nirvana, no Xanadu. Only the settled condition of our common purpose.         

*It's also of note that Simpson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and didn't come to the U.S. until 1940. I haven't read his memoir of his early life, but the fact of his foreign birth and upbringing probably also contributes to Simpson's difference--i.e., being as much a "citizen of the world" as of America proper.   

Thursday, February 18, 2010

LA Confidential - Ellroy's Poem to Noir Southland

If you've ever seen James Ellroy in person you have some inkling of what a weird impression he can make. I'm not a big fan of the noir genre in crime literature, but Ellroy holds down a strong position among the "hardboiled" (or maybe fried) contingent. Never one to pull punches or soften a blow, he can be counted on to choose always the most emphatic or tough approach to any situation or expression.   
Ellroy's been obsessed with the LA crime scene all his life, in part as a result of the murder of his mother when he was ten, a crime that was never solved. Ellroy's early life was troubled, with petty crime, substance abuse, poverty and rootlessness. Self-educated, he published his first novel in 1981 (based on his experience working as a golf caddy). In 1987, he published the first volume of his "L.A. Quartet" which includes L.A. Confidential (1990). His mature writing is complexly plotted, and features a dense colloquial "telegraphic" style that reads like a combination police-blotter and rap patois. It takes some getting used to, and isn't to everyone's taste.
The movie telescopes much of the detail and plot into a little over two hours, but still manages to feel a trifle cramped and hurried in places. A tale of corruption inside the Los Angeles Police Department involving a high-ranking Captain (James Cromwell as Dudley Smith, in probably his finest role ever, vamping as the smooth Irish operator with a black heart) and a small group of goon subordinates, it pits three unlikely confederates--Russell Crowe as Bud White, a tough-guy with a chip as big as a bowling ball on his shoulder, Guy Pearce as Ed Exley (also a career role), the ambitious young would-be chief-of-police trying vindicate his late cop-father's memory, and Kevin Spacey as the "celebrity cop" Jack Vincennes. Each of these unlikely heroes finds his virtue just in time, though the Spacey character is off'd by Captain Smith well before the movie's violent climactic scene at an abandoned motel out among the oil derricks. 
Smith is trying to consolidate and take over the drug and prostitution rackets from a crumbling crime empire of recently imprisoned boss Mickey Cohen, and bumping off anyone who threatens to bar his way. Both Spacey (Vincennes) and Pearce (Exley) stumble accidentally onto disturbing contradictions in separate murder cases, while Crowe (White) is dragooned (as the heavy) into Captain Smith's illegal brutality sessions. The plot's thickened by the machinations of smut and scandal peddler Sid Hudgens (played by Danny DeVito), and spiced up by high-class hooker Lynn Bracken (played beautifully by Kim Basinger, who won the academy award for best actress here).   
Jerry Goldsmith's original score, leavened with contemporary clips from the swing and torchy hits of the time, and punctuated with eerie sound-effects, is brilliant. The music, combined with the framing device of having DeVito's scandal-sheet voice-over touting the chamber of commerce attractions of the new sunlit suburbia and movie-land glamour gives the film its nostalgic identity: Real police department scandals of the 1950's form the basis for this typical good-cop/bad cop corruption trope. The film is like a bridge between the heavy black and white noir cliches of the 1940 crime films, and the later "atmospheric" evocations like Chinatown or Goodfellas. Ellroy's mood restores the punch of the older style, while incorporating some of the neglected sleaze (homosexual prostitution, raw racial violence).
Kevin Spacey, as usual, steals the show with his slick portrayal of the compromised detective, taking payoffs from DeVito to set up "celebrity arrests"--but Cromwell (Captain Smith) is so menacing, and smooth, he ought to have gotten an Oscar himself. The film owes something to Scorcese in its flat-plane, cartoonish cubism, where characters and sets become one-dimensional, but there's something deeper going on here: Crowe/White's past of being raised in an abusive household drives a primitive rage in him, expressed both as violence in his work, and profound affection for Bassinger/Bracken. Crowe plays it straight in a part that doesn't allow him to show much intelligence--along the lines of how he played it in Gladiator. There's a clear relationship between the White character, and Ellroy's own real-life obsession about wife-abusers--the emotional core of the drama. There's a saying in the academy that the definition of a novel is "a book that has something wrong with it."                       

One could make the same statement about Ellroy's books, and by extension, the movies made from them. His troubled childhood, difficult youth and brushes with madness, crime and pornographic obsession gave him a bird's-eye view of the social and psychological stress that would become the formulaic game-board of his fictional world. L.A. Confidential is like a valentine to the noir genre, by a man who, to some degree, lived the reality of it. Authenticity may get lost when the person who tells the story is too close to the material, but Ellroy's outsider stance is the perfect imaginative position. His characters may at times seem like cartoon versions of people, but that's part of their power. Real life can seem like a dream, or, as with Ellroy, a nightmare filled with unsolved mysteries, abandoned verdicts and unpaid debts. And then fiction can serve as the court of last resort in a personal code of justice.    

Irving Penn Small Trades - the Glitz & the Grits

Of Irving Penn's new book, Small Trades (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009), one's first apprehension is its anachronistic, anti-climactic quality. The Small Trades Project, as it was termed, was carried out in Paris, London and New York in 1950-51; though originally intended to be reproduced in Vogue Magazine as feature article illustrations, Penn eventually made full-scale art prints from the medium format negatives, printing them in Platinum-Palladium emulsions. 
It has always seemed to me that Penn's work exhibits a tension between things and people seen through the careful eye of a fashion illustrator, and his naturalistic interest in exploiting the gritty verité textures and surfaces of everyday "real life." Fashion photography is primarily about creating a sense of a perfected occasion, one in which an invented, elevated social or artistic potential is fantasized through the production of idealized images of style, wealth, conspicuous consumption--a demonstration of, or the aspiration towards, class and esteem.
Working for Vogue, beginning in the late 1940's, Penn's approach to subject-matter was studio-oriented, under circumstances of utmost control. Never a photo-journalist, he was always a perfectionist, seeing his images as clarified instances, with a high degree of definition and purpose. There is never anything "accidental" about a Penn still-life, or a Penn portrait: Everything is just so, and the reproduction of the original vision is carried out with painstaking devotion to detail and effect.
Starting out in Paris, working in a natural light studio setting (Penn's preference), as seen below, using coarse theatrical canvas backgrounds, exploiting all the primitivistic visual qualities of such earlier attempts, for instance, of Atget's documentary images, Penn sought to create a series of caricatures of identity profiles based on eccentric tradespeople, separated from their respective milieus, isolated against a neutral studio setting--an approach which he would use repeatedly over successive decades, both for straight celebrity and fashion portraiture, as well as for "primitive" and exotic subjects (i.e., the "mud men" of New Guinea). Penn sought out and paid dozens of different tradespeople, picked out on the street, persuaded to come as they were into the studio.                  

                                                                                   Penn's Paris Studio
The initial effect of this kind of specimen portraiture is condescension. The picturesque absurdity of portraying working-people in their functional outfits, with their tools and paraphernalia in hand or hanging off their outfits, is emphasized and exaggerated by the black and white, dry-point, sepia ranged images. Penn was quoted as saying that he had great respect for these tradespeople, admired their diligence and specific dignity, and felt that his portraits revealed their strengths and integrity. But there are other dimensions to this enterprise.       

                                                                                         Street Cleaner
Most of these individuals are from the lower classes. The work they do may be crucial and necessary, but it is frequently back-breaking, dirty, repetitive, and dreary. Penn seems not to have fully apprehended the irony of putting such "low company" into the context of high fashion journalism and publicity--unless, as may well be possible, he felt that by doing so, he could ennoble them, to honor them through the care of unfettered regard.       
                                                                                     The Balloon Seller
Many of the subjects are truly anachronistic--the circus performers, many of the street vendors, chimney sweep, iceman, trainporter, blacksmith, milkman, etc.--who are already like curiosities in a wax museum, a metaphorical undertone that is common to many of these portraits. If these individuals appear quaint and dated, it's evidence of the distance we feel from them in time, as well as the presumed separation between their sense of economic dilemma and our leisured regard.  
                                                                                   The Chimney Sweep
The documentary style Penn employs here is also suggestive of the periodical illustration style of previous eras: Hogarth, Cruikshank, Daumier, Nast, Beerbohm--and even contemporary figures such as Hirschfeld or Levine, Searle or Ralph Steadman. The range of possible responses to such caricatured identities isn't limited to, or controlled by, Penn's precise, aesthetically sophisticated methodology. Many of these images seem absurdly pompous, or sadly pathetic. Penn's objectivization of these type-cast early technological-industrial species suggests the high picaresque seediness toward the end of the settled urban condition, before efficiencies and consolidations squeezed these individuals out of the social contract.       
                                                                                      The Lady Wrestler
In the immediacy of the post-War world of Western Europe, Penn and his editors may have felt that a whole way of life was disappearing, and in a sense they were correct. What travelers and journalists who moved in that world would reluctantly be forced to acknowledge, was that no true reconstitution of the Ancien Régime would ever occur, that automation, mass communication and the speed of the modern world would close forever the curtain on the charming small scale of daily life.   
                                                                                       The Undertaker 
As more and more were swept up into the propulsive flux of late capitalism, the meaning of individual identity--its knowledge, accoutrements, rhythms, and lyrical flavors--would gradually be sucked out. Penn's images--a kind of extended snapshot of a whole class of people, once integral to the running and maintenance of the great cities of the civilized world--are like an elegy, or an ode to a past that is hardly recognizable anymore, a world of settled function, reliable performance, fixed adaptations. The high contrast between the dense, almost doomed quality of these platinum-palladium images, and our hygienic, scrubbed remoteness from the world they represent, is devastating. Penn's approach is both respectful, and imperious. These people are like artifacts in an archeological file from the 20th Century, except that we're too close to them to remain untouched by their pathos. We're only two generations away from their world, a world which, of course, in many respects, still exists, in much of the so-called "Third World."              
                                                                                   The Organ Grinder

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Trouble with Poetry - Circa 1960

Robert Bly edited a magazine in the 1950's and 1960's and 1970's, called The Fifties/The Sixties/The Seventies. In it, he introduced readers to the work of contemporaries whom he admired, as well as foreign poets in translation. Also, he occasionally used it to offer polemical assaults on what he regarded as faults and problems in contemporary poetry writing. In the issue above from the Fall of 1960, he published an essay criticizing the work of W.S. Merwin, "The Work of W.S. Merwin." The essay is interesting to me, from the vantage of the present, since much of what Bly criticizes in Merwin's work seems pertinent to criticisms I would make of contemporary poetry writing. History offers many examples of ironic correspondences among shifting points of view and changing allegiances. I doubt whether Bly would stand behind the charges he made against Merwin in 1960, today, but it's interesting to compare how attitudes or cycles of fashion repeat themselves in succeeding decades.  
Bly's primary criticism of Merwin's early verse is based on a proposition that the tradition of European poetry since the time of written language has been transformed from a primarily oral medium to one influenced by writing (or print), which he calls "prose language." Bly feels that the problem with so much contemporary American poetry (circa 1960) is that it's the application of this "prose language" to traditional forms of versification. Even poets as diverse as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, Bly says, fall prey to this basic contradiction, of using the language of prose--of journalism, or science, or sociological language--in traditional forms of lyric utterance to which it is unsuited or not adapted. 
"One might speculate that beginning in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the written language has been used by more and more poets for the language of poetry, and the increase still continues...Whitman, and after him Yeats and Eliot abruptly break away from this written language, but the American poets after them have not been that radical. They have for the most part gone on using the written language, and these poets, sensing that poetry is becoming each year more prosy, more and more try to overcome the anxiety by fusing with the language elements indisputably 'poetic'--namely rhymes, strict meters, elaborate forms such as sestinas, etc. The heavy emergence of form in the poets of the nineteen fifties, as in New Poets of England and America...a poetry which adopts written language will sooner or later be driven to adopt heavy, usually archaic, form...futile attempts to reintroduce intensity, while keeping the written language. Many of the weird phenomena of the last twenty years, including Yvor Winters' school, which has been so destructive, are more easily understood if we keep in mind that the most generally recommended language for poetry as been prose." 
Bly goes on to add that this trend also seems to require the use of certain classical subject matter--myths and paradigms from ancient literature. Against this movement, Bly remarks a tradition of "objects, objectivism"--the "poetry of things." 
"The absorption in a poetry of things is shared by almost all the poets in America today...the poetry of the Black Mountain group, who after Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams emphasize 'objects' and 'objectivism'...."
Against which Bly proposes a renewed interest in the "deep" image and the "deep song" which he sees being practiced abroad, especially in the work of Neruda, Trakl, Vallejo, Lorca, etc. This indictment and summons is by now an historical commonplace, leading to a kind of poem realized in the work of Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell, Levertov, among others, during the 1960's and 1970's.
Merwin, of course, would abandon his academic versifying of the 1950's for a stripped-down free verse style inspired largely by French models, which he has continued to employ ever since. 
In 1962, Bly carried his argument further, attacking Eliot, Pound and Williams for leading their descendants away from the inner voice of the unconscious, to mere outward pictures of conscious life, to concepts of the poem as repository of wisdom, or descriptive banality--and encouraging instead, mystical notions of the buried power of spiritual awareness and enlightenment.
And yet Bly eventually also became a strident political advocate for peace, during the Vietnam War years, and later during our foreign adventures in the Middle East. In his poetry, beginning with The Light Around the Body [1967], Bly attempts to unite a political activism with a stream of deep imagery designed to liberate the Western mind from the archetypical strictures of confining sexual roles, predictable ethical categories. 
Nevertheless, Bly resisted the impulse to look inside language, regarding it instead as a stale "vehicle" for the description and conveyance of cathartic messages or ritualistic sublimation. For Bly, the oral tradition was just that: The language of every day speech, apprehensible to all, immediately accessible, easy, transparent, dependable and fixed. It seems never to have occurred to him that an active oral tradition might suggest rapid manipulations and augmentations of syntax, signification, and formal eccentricities. Bly himself, in other words, seems to have become trapped in the same dead end paradigm of prosaic (written, printed) language employed inside forms of hackneyed lyric expression, as those he found so repugnant (in 1960) in the earlier work of Merwin and others of his generation (of the 1950's). 
My own analysis suggests that Bly lacked either the linguistic skill to invent new form, or the daring or insight to explore language at the level of syntax, or of the signifier. But he did see how the academic post-war poetry of Merwin (and Hollander and Wilbur and Hill and Merrill and Nemerov and so on) had become trapped inside a tradition which was closing down. Merwin, as we know, made the effort, probably unsuccessfully in my view, to transform himself into an experimental writer, as did certain other figures of the time (Wright, Simpson, Finkel, Hall, Hecht, Rich, Silkin). Today, we continue to see examples of both kinds of choices among active poets. Figures such as Richard Kenney, or Robert Pinsky still strive to make finely crafted traditionally constructed poems using the same tools that Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley employed, writing light verse in the 1930's or 1940's. Jorie Graham or Leslie Scalapino explore free-form structures whose possibilities may seem endlessly enticing, but open-ended and unfocused.
Bly's call for a lyricism based on the "deep song" of the South Americans and Scandinavian mystics was answered; it had its vogue, and it passed into history. Perhaps today we may see part of its effects in the popularity of Rumi--a figure who seems to possess nearly all the requirements which Bly set forth in his program of the early 1960's. 

"WHO DAT?" - a Ne Plus Ultra for The Big Easy

The Saints came marching in to The Big Easy on Tuesday to celebrate their first Superbowl victory, so I invented a new mix to share the glitz (from the other side of the continent). Call it the Ne Plus Ultra (The Flawless).  

The Ingredients (by proportion)

3 Parts Bourbon
2 Parts Mandarin Orange Liqueur
1 Part Herbsaint
2 Parts Fresh Lemon Juice

Shaken hard and served up (no garnish).

Just enough of the traditional flavor of the Deep South to evoke the smooth side of the alligator. Soothe that savage beast! 

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Earth is a Grave

The earth is a grave.
The single most obvious fact about history is the startling and sudden ascent of man on the planet. We know from geological evidence that the earth itself also is "alive" in the sense that it was born, will live for a certain time, and then will be "dead" (i.e., all the energy it holds, and the elaborations of that energy will dissipate and be exhausted). The sun, too, has a certain life, and will eventually "die." The inception and progress of life "as we know it" (animate existence) is only a minute blip or blink on the geologic time-line. Whatever convulsions occur over the next millennia will have no ultimate effect on the larger "clocks" which tick at geologic or astronomical rates. All "life" including humankind, is a temporary phenomenon, and we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking there are larger purposes to our existence, which somehow do or do not support our actions and choices. We are our own purpose. 
In an act of irremediable selfishness, we have completely overtaken and exceeded the natural boundaries which "nature" sets to the increase of species. By "natural boundaries" I mean food, shelter, space and other competing species. Humans, like all other life forms, exist by virtue of their ability to reproduce themselves. This reproductive necessity is programmed into our minds and instincts, just as it is in all species. It is a simple chemical fact. Species are programmed to reproduce themselves at rates which exceed the natural boundaries, in order to overcome the depredations which tend to limit, or reduce their numbers. In "a state of nature" there is no perfected "balance" between the tendency of any species to increase, and the forces which limit it, though there may be periods of temporary stasis which allow for settled relationships to coexist for longer segments of time. We know, for instance, that mass extinctions of species have occurred in the past, as the result of astronomical events like giant meteors. And we suspect that viruses will probably eventually outsmart us. 
But in the short term, we have created a crisis by rapidly reproducing our numbers, through the manipulation and utilization of available resource(s). The earth is a finite entity; all forms of energy are being expended at the same rate, though it may seem there are variations in the progress of this process. In other words, in the long run, we may create pockets or loops of potential delay and hedges against scarcity, but eventually we are doomed. In the vast entropical progress, the tiniest variations in this progress may seem important, but they're of no consequence whatsoever in the great scheme of things. 
Nevertheless, if we wish to strike a temporary bargain with "nature"--for our own convenience--or to influence the progress of other species with which we share the planet--there are certain choices we do have. We can leave to our own instinctual reproductive urge the decision about how fast, and on what terms, we increase, and the limits we know we will encounter. That's the way things occur "in nature." When a species exceeds its limit, it begins to die off, is killed, or stops reproducing. We see this constantly in nature. Humankind, in fact, has created a whole new set of "artificial" limits on other species, by winning out over them in the competition for available food, shelter and space--we have, in effect, created new sets of boundaries, hastening the scarcity, and extinction of whole species.
Ironically, humankind has the power of self-consciousness. We know what we're doing. We know about limits, and we know about consequences. We know that if we reproduce too rapidly within a certain environmental region, eventually boundaries will prevent further expansion, and crises will occur. Indeed, the earth itself, as a context of subsistence, is itself a single boundary. Attempts at ameliorating scarcities and regional crises are like putting out fires: If we keep feeding the general conflagration with fuel, no amount of firefighting will ever succeed. Each effort to "save" populations from the consequences of rapid, uncontrolled increase will only result in more devastation, unless we address the primary causation.
We can decide voluntarily to slow down population increase. The main short-term challenge to humanity is to control its numbers. We know that by pursuing the present path, suffering and waste will occur on a grand scale. It already does. Millions of individuals die constantly on earth, as a result of hunger, pestilence and conflict. By pretending that uncontrolled population expansion has no consequences, we continue to perpetuate trends that will result in ever-more frequent and devastating effects. In a sense, this futility may seem important, but in the long run, it's a very small thing. From an Olympian vantage, the growing consciousness of our limits may seem harmless enough--despite the individual consciousness of pain, we can use our intelligence to set up effective delusions which allow us to maintain limited senses of security and perseverance, even when we know them to be false at bottom.
In the last analysis, the only ones we can truly "save" from the consequences of uncontrolled increase, are those whom we can prevent from being born. Life is not sacred. In nature, species increase, then die back. Death is an integral part of the process of the descent of species. There is no "plan." If the present population of the earth were to be reduced by a half, or increased ten-fold, the equation would be the same, just different in terms of individuals. Each person who lives and dies in abject scarcity and hardship is simply part of the larger bargain with limits. The humanitarian palliatives we practice are simply footnotes to this larger equation. 
We can imagine the endgame of total, flagrant obliviousness. A trashed planet. Mass suffering. But we are proving over and over again that the reproductive tendency is stronger than any mediation. We can dicker over short-term solutions and fixes. It's a pathetic performance, touching, but essentially doomed. In the end, you can't win. It's how you play the game that matters.