Skeletal New York / Esquelética New York
Esta es una crónica para el diario Clarín de New York durante el brote de Covid-19:
And this is a quick English translation:
Skeletal New York
It is Friday, March 27, around noon. The city is getting ready for the worst of the debacle, and I go out again after several days with the attitude of the proverbial survivor determined to review the state of the world after the world ends. The symptoms I was suffering were less intolerable than enigmatic, especially in their seemingly random way of coming and going: deep muscular pain, outbreaks of overwhelming exhaustion, a growing cough, nausea, a barely insinuated pain in the center of the chest. Fever no. But the doctor who attended me by videoconference on Thursday (there are no face-to-face visits for cases like mine) regretted that the media insisted on this fever issue. Despite its absence—she concluded—I’d better assume I was infected and celebrate that the worst was over.
This Friday in early spring the weather turns out to be ideal for the convalescent; the atmosphere is crystal clear and the sun dazzling. Everything has changed since Monday, when I still wasn’t sure I was sick and had ventured into the drizzle with my dog. The discontinuity induced by COVID-19 is so fundamental that we speak of that remote time in mid-March with a sense of unreality: the idyll of the world of the past, when children attended classes and drinkers swirled their glasses in crowded bars. On Monday, when the main restrictions had already been ordered, people did not seem so suspicious; now, a woman who walks towards me on our shared sidewalk slowly begins to deviate so that our trajectories, when they cross, do so two meters away. I, without realizing it, respond to her invitation by deviating too. I am amazed at our virtuosity in the execution of this dance that we didn’t know but improvised so well, although I realize that a blunt, impersonal hostility is what makes us so precise. I tell myself that it would be good if the Furies that the virus has awakened return to their niches when everything ends.
Everything? Our disorientation is palpable and not hard to understand: of the recent catastrophes, this is the one that has produced the least dramatic images. That must be why in our conversations we tend to say “Chernobyl” rather than “the AIDS crisis”. We consult the death charts, but they do not show us the bodies. We see the nurses slumping at the door of their hospitals, but not the patients who are suffocating inside. We scrutinize photo after photo of empty places: planes, buildings, trains, shops, theaters, streets. I’ve seen plenty, but nothing had prepared me for the real-life spectacle of plague-ridden New York. I was afraid that when I wrote I would resort, for comparison, to the wonderful photos of deserted streets and shops taken by the photographer Eugene Atget in Paris a little over a century ago, but now instead, when I go out, I think about those panoramic views of plateaus that Cowboys cross in classic westerns.
It is disturbing to recognize that the city has never been more splendid. After crossing Central Park (duos of boys with their fathers or mothers or babysitters play extremely slow baseball games), I went down Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum walking south, through the aristocratic section. Before, I would always look up over the delirium of taxis and workers to see if a glimpse of the immobility of this or that molding on the balconies of the buildings would offer some respite from the noise. But now on the sidewalk there is only a man who walks his pet and a young couple who hold gloved hands and murmur through their masks. The owners of the mansions have gone a couple of weeks ago to their vacation homes in the Hamptons or Florida, carrying the plague (which has attacked the highest classes first). The doormen seem relieved: I’ve never seen them so calm while talking to the suppliers, nor so tiny in front of the stone and brick masses that have acquired a fossil air. It is as if we were visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum: everything is suspended in mid-performance. In Borges’s “The Secret Miracle,” God grants an author about to be executed the chance to arrest the physical universe for a year. The gesture of the sergeant commanding the platoon is fixed at the decisive point of his trajectory and a raindrop crystallizes on the condemned: we are him. This or that shuttered business still encourages us to take advantage of the offers it proposed on the day of the declaration of the catastrophe, and the Met Breuer, on Madison Avenue, announces the retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter that opened just a couple of weeks ago. There are no horses or coachmen in the southeast corner of Central Park, in front of the Plaza Hotel, temporary residence of global magnates, and the Apple store where tourists used to flock is a banal cube that covers an unnecessary basement. This corner, which is one of the most hyperactive in New York, has become a brief collection of details and distances, and each momentary person is an event. But why is everything so individual and sharp? I find the answer: pollution levels have violently dropped, and the air has never been so transparent in the city. That’s what leaves it so naked. Despite the gelid, abandoned extensions, the feeling (for the ex-patient, the probable immune) is of surprising intimacy.
The impression breaks when I remember the price of this temporary regeneration. Recent projections anticipate 10,000 deaths in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, but we have stopped paying attention to the projections. The exact number does not matter: it is the flood. And here, where safety nets are laughable, millions of jobs are lost minute by minute (three million jobless claims have just been announced nationwide). Recently we were amazed at how streets and even entire neighborhoods were acquiring the air of ghost towns due to the migration of customers to digital commerce; migration has now turned into a stampede. And when it all ends, what will happen? This is a phase of experimentation and learning: not only in hospitals, but also in schools, in stores, in restaurants. If it does not extend for more than a few weeks, we will probably return to the old habits; if it lasts longer than that, many transformations will be final. So when I walk back home, passing the Dakota Building and the Museum of Natural History, central institutions of the pre-existing order, I spontaneously take the emotional position of saying goodbye to that old, now skeletal New York, that is still there, for the moment, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out to be one of those structures secretly gobbled up by termites that suddenly collapse for no reason, at the slightest blow.
Seis pausas de Max Beerbohm / Six pauses by Max Beerbohm
Traduje estas seis narraciones (ficciones y ensayos) del extraordinario escritor inglés Max Beerbohm en los últimos tres o cuatro años. Aquí van (en formato pdf) precedidos por una presentación (tal vez un poco larga) donde se enumeran los hechos principales de la vida del autor.
I’ve translated to Spanish these six fictions and essays by the fabulous English writer Max Beerbohm over the last three or four years. Here they are, in pdf format, preceded by a longish, biographical presentation.
The Men from Russia / Los hombres de Rusia
This is the English version of the beginning of my novel The Men from Russia, published in Spanish by Jekyll&Jill / Esta es la versión inglesa de la introducción de mi novela Los hombres de Rusia, publicada en España por Jekyll&Jill (http://jekyllandjill.com/)
The text you are about to read is the most curious document produced during the electoral season ending in the unlikely presidency of Donald J. Trump. It tells the story of the origins and actions of a small band of aspiring warriors in seemingly perpetual displacement across the state of Florida. They travel in pickups and trailers, in which they traffic women and drugs, following the dictate of a recluse leader who calls for the restoration of an archaic form of existence that preserves the germs of a future and brilliant humanity. In the furtive course of their wandering, these men (and their children, and their companions) stop in an abandoned, half-flooded zoo, not far from Walt Disney World, where they set up camp, sleeping in the old veterinary clinic and locking up their slaves inside empty cages. The text, purportedly composed by the adolescent son of the director of the establishment, provides us with a glimpse of this community at the moment of its deepest crisis, after the “men from Russia” (as the text calls them) have suffered the worst of their defeats and need to mourn the most painful of their deaths. I found the text thanks to my frequent visits to 4chan, an online discussion space frequented by supporters of America’s new right.
“Alt-right” (ie, “alternative right”) is the name a small group of writers and activists gave to an ill-defined social network that has been rapidly aggressively expanding since the beginning of this decade. They argued that their collective entity offered the only authentically new way of life in an aging and decadent world. The alternative right had achieved a particular visibility in the confines of the US, but its members felt they were the messengers of a revolt that would soon explode throughout what they insisted on calling the West. I would not have known of their existence if their work hadn’t been decisive in Trump’s electoral victory. In 2016, when television channels and newspapers started to mention the existence of this cultural and political trend, two of its most prominent spokesmen published a short introduction that they called “An establishment conservative’s guide to the Alt-right.” The authors, Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari, presented themselves as highly intellectual individuals who, asphyxiated by the consensus that dominated the country during Barack Obama’s presidency, had found new sources of thought and imagination in the texts of the American HL Mencken, the German Oswald Spengler, the Italian Julius Evola, the Russian Alexander Dugin. The “amorphous movement” that they aspired to describe includes, we were told, very diverse populations: enemies of the feminist left and critics of campus progressivism; proponents of a strict confinement of the nation within its borders and adversaries of the neoconservative doctrine of war; apologists for the rule of Vladimir Putin and the positions, in France, of the National Front; paleoconservatives and neoreactionaries. What could all these clans have in common? The preference for homogeneity over diversity, stability over change, hierarchy and order over egalitarianism; a passion for preserving the white male tribe which they saw as victim to a slowly evolving genocide in a country without borders; the conviction that any contact between individuals of different ethnic groups is an inevitable source of conflict, and that the drastic separation of races is the sine qua non condition of social harmony; the belief in the virtues of an alliance between these young intellectuals freed from the oppression of the dominant beliefs of their time and the males of the white working class, prey to multiple addictions, living under the threat of the dark races who, coming from the countries of the South, roam the deserted villages and the abandoned fields, taking the jobs that white men formerly mastered and lurking in dark corners to prey on their women.
On 4chan, one of the fora preferred by supporters of the “amorphous movement,” a user uploaded a series of photographs in November 2014 of the naked, prone body of a woman, accompanied by this comment: “Turns out its way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks on the movies. . . Her son will be home from school soon. He’ll find her, then call the cops. I just wanted to share the pics before they find me.” David Michael Kalac, the anonymous user, had just murdered his lover. Comments on his post included mysterious and enthusiastic references to an incipient Beta Uprising. On September 30, 2015, an anonymous user warned his fellow 4chaners to stay away from any school located in the Northwest. The next day a young man named Chris Harper-Mercer murdered nine students in a small Oregon university and then proceeded to commit suicide. On 4chan, announcements that the Beta Uprising had begun were proliferating.”. Cryptic references to the rebellion appeared in discussions about the launch of the digital game Overwatch, about the changes in the bitcoin economy, the captivity of Julian Assange, the foretellings of this or that prophet; and many of the comments linked to a particular website: www.agellius.net. When I checked the address, I was surprised to see that it only led to the text that you’re about to read.
The Men from Russia was the title of the document. Given its many peculiarities, it was extremely hard to decide who could have written it. Was it by a single author or a committee? Was the writer American or not?. The style, so unlike anything else on websites frequented by rightists, so frequently extravagant, made me think that it wasn’t crafted by a native English speaker. Was it authored by Russians, Italians? I had reasons to assume either. In any case, it was signed with a Latin pseudonym: Aulus Gellius. This did not surprise me: the admiration, the reverence for Roman antiquity is common in the circles to which the author belonged. The most eloquent plea to vote for candidate Donald Trump, promulgated when doing it seemed the pinnacle of foolishness, was written by a polemicist named Michael Anton, who is still an adviser to the now-president. Anton used a Latin plume name for his writing: Publius Decius Mus. His text was called “The election of Flight 73,” and it argued that Trump was the only one in politics who could prevent the United States from definitely transforming into something unrecognizable. The author of this pamphlet, confronted with “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” said: “This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.”
To refresh the vague memory that the mysterious penname elicited, I consulted the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which revealed how little is known about its original bearer: “Aulus Gellius, (flourished 2nd century AD), Latin author remembered for his miscellany Noctes Atticae (“Attic Nights”), in which many fragments of lost works are preserved. Written in Athens to beguile the winter evenings, the work is an interesting source on the state of knowledge and scholarship of his time. Both in Rome, where he studied literature and rhetoric, and in Athens, where he studied philosophy, Gellius’ teachers and friends included many distinguished men, anecdotes about whom he included in his book.” This confirmed an impression that I had from the moment I started reading the document: in the manner of the ancient epics, it was an artifact destined to conserve, in the form of images and stories, the memories of events, places, individuals, pieces of knowledge that the author deemed vital for the community he was addressing.
But what was this community? As I progressed in the narrative, it was increasingly difficult for me to be sure. It seemed clear that the text’s sensibility—and that of its presumed readers– is a peculiar variant of one described in a book published in 1979 by Furio Jesi, an Italian historian, Egyptologist, philologist and critic who died shortly after he finished it. The book is called Culture of the Right (Cultura de Destra). The “culture of the right,” according to Jesi, is characterized by the use of mythologies and symbols brought from a homogenized past and turned into a “mush” (pappa, in Italian: what is fed to newborns), a “mush” that the creators of its rituals use to mold their caracteristic confections: the Homeland, the Nation, the Race. The participants of these rituals are made to feel like they inhabit a sphere of “spiritual luxury” that masks what is, in fact, a celebration of sheer, gratuitous brutality. The absurd rigors and the erratic cruelties that the document details (rituals, encounters, visions, combats) are the vehicles by which an imprecise but magnificent past is supposed to return: the origin, sacred and pure, come back to life, with all its veils and sarcophagi, gadgets of a “religion of death” (the nucleus, for Jesi, of right-wing culture) that celebrates its rites with the help of the most ruinous antiquities.
It was not difficult for me to discover some of the antiquities that The Men from Russia collects and reworks: fragments taken from the writings of JH Rosny Ainé, Pierre Loti, Rafael Cansinos Assens, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Michael Crichton and, above all, Gabriele D’Annunzio. I do not pretend to have recognized all the loans, and it is possible that, as with the Noctes Atticae, there is nothing original in this intricate sequence of mystical illuminations and sexual conversions. But something in the text seemed powerfully singular: its rhetoric echoed the style of many of the key figures of the far-right in the US. This style—whose deployment in the political domain perhaps constitutes the specifically American contribution to the “culture of the Right,” although a decisive precursor is the Italian Silvio Berlusconi—is characterized by a calculated use of buffoonery. Filmmaker Alison Klayman, who documented international guru Steve Bannon for an entire year, points in an interview to the curious fact that ,despite the solemnity of the subjects he addresses (the fate of the West, the threat of immigrants), Bannon’s lectures have an atmosphere not unlike that of a comedy club. At any time—Klayman says—“his speeches would turn from speech to comedy set to rally.” A similar (but much more pronounced) tonal instability is characteristic of Donald Trump. An article in The Economist indicates that the political persona of the current president is informed by his experience as an occasional participant—and a permanent hall-of-famer—in professional wrestling. Anybody who has seen the events offered by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (the company that dominates the global market of the “sport”) knows that the spectacle “constantly shifts between different registers of make-believe, from real to credible to absurd.” Each particular combat is a chapter in a wildly changing story where angels constantly turn into demons, and demons into angels, for the violent joy or ecstatic dismay of fans whose awareness of the farce doesn’t impede—and even deepens—their emotional involvement with the characters. “Mr Trump’s success—the author adds—lies in applying WWE principles where the line between performance and reality is even finer. In ‘The Apprentice’ he played a successful businessman. In politics he saw that the contest of ideas its participants claimed to be engaged in was really a partisan slugfest almost as contrived and absurd as the WWE. He therefore offered a more ghoulishly watchable version of what voters were already getting.” The article concludes: “How much of Mr Trump’s behavior is concocted is debatable; private Trump is also pretty pantomime. But that uncertainty merely adds, WWE style, to the reality-tumbling effect.”
I noted in Aulus Gellius’ narrative a comparable way of switching “from speech to comedy set to rally,” “from real to credible to absurd,” a dramatic, unpredictable oscillation “between different registers of make believe,” surely intended to induce a “reality-tumbling effect.” I decided to investigate the matter as soon as I concluded a project I was working on at the time: a long article about the proliferation, in 1919, of methods of music therapy for the treatment of war trauma. I downloaded The Men from Russia to get back to the document later. But, as so often happens to us in these days of overabundance of images and stories, I forgot it until the night of July 16th of last year. That afternoon on the news, I had seen Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump’s joint press conference in Helsinki. With his head down, shoulders arched, tongue stuck out, the president of the United States spoke in the tone of a subject trying to win the sympathy of the man who can decide his fate. He was the envoy from a remote country who entered prostrate in the Emperor’s compound. He would never dare to contradict the authority who received him: you saw the fear in his eyes. Intrigued and shocked by the scene, that same evening I went back to www.agellius.net. The site was shut down. Thankfully I possessed the pdf I had the foresight to download. I sent it to a number of friends. I thought that, considering the political circumstances of the country, they would find it as fascinating as I did; but they found it tedious, obscure, impossible to read. It is with the hope that you will think differently that I decided to add, here and there, passages that I hope help to clarify the text, and compiled the accompanying explanatory notes. As for the illustrations, I kept the ones chosen by the author.
Reinaldo Laddaga, New York, March 2019
Warhol at the Whitney
I’ve just published a long review of the retrospective of Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum in 4columns: