Posts Tagged ‘mortality


3a) Why the Yankees Finished Second

Inexplicably, all of the postmortems I’ve come across have ignored the two most important reasons the Yankees came up short in 1993. Am I alone in seeing the obvious, that the factors most responsible for the Yankees’ second-place finish were the questionable priorities of the people who make our drug rules and the embarrassing reluctance of my fellow fans to get their street clothes dirty?

To take the latter issue first: how often in this past season could it be said of Yankee fans that they were truly into the game? Can we count how many times they sat and watched while a Yankee made a final out, or failed to snatch a ball from the grasp of an opposing outfielder and bring it into the seats when New York needed a dinger? (I’m sorry, but over the course of eighty-one home games, one fan taking the field to keep an inning alive, and one fan deftly lengthening the reach of a warning track fly ball, hardly qualifies as the model of hustle you’d want to see Little League fans emulating.)

Unfortunately, given the contemptible chicken-heartedness of the current crop of so-called ”Yankee supporters” from The Bronx, there are no quick remedies for this grievous situation—none that I can see, anyway. A solution will likely have to wait until Mr. Steinbrenner relocates the team to New Jersey where it will attract fans of proven mettle. (A demonstrably fearless people, New Jerseyans have astonished everyone with their remarkable ability to survive in a cruel and hostile environment the rest of us had written off as unfit for habitation. Although their faculties have been severely compromised they still manage to sort of function. Folks like these won’t be intimidated by the prospect of security personnel bouncing their heads around.)

The other problem, however, could be disposed of as quickly as next season if we can get our leaders to re-think their position, bend a little, and allow Steve Howe to do cocaine again. I mean Howe performing at his best was crucial to a Yankee success this year and, his ERA up something like four runs since he quit using, you don’t have to be a Starfleet Academy graduate to recognize that letting him keep his blow was the way to maintain his effectiveness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not unmindful of the potential risk involved in granting Howe such a dispensation. There is, indeed, an argument to be made against it. Permitting him to go back on coke could very well subject his friends to yet more rounds of earnest, inane and exasperatingly discursive all-night monologues, and force his lovers to endure more three-hour bouts of limp and grossly sweaty sex with never a climax. But think about it. Isn’t winning a pennant worth the price, especially when you consider that Howe would frequently demonstrate an amazingly generous spirit and an exceptional capacity for affection?

Look. We’re all going to get very sick, really seriously ill, and then we’re going to die. And life, I’m sure you’ll agree, is no bowl of Jack Daniels even before this happens. When a chance to become forgetful of our circumstances and to feel superior to our fate presents itself, don’t we owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of it? And to these ends, how many things, besides winning a Superbowl, are equal to winning a pennant? Blowing the head off a rabbit at fifty yards? Meeting Chuck Norris? (Make your own list, but I’ll bet it’s just as short.) No, winning a pennant is something very special.

I’m reasonably sure that I haven’t had one of those nasty flashbacks since 1975. So why am I the only one who remembers the exchange between Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Murcer that took place during a lightning storm delay in Milwaukee a few years ago and which, the weird static and mesmerizing visual interference notwithstanding, illuminated far better than I ever could, the size of the reward a pennant offers.

”Accomplishing a league championship,” Rizzuto said, ”is to solve a fundamental existential dilemma. Have you ever thought, Murcer, about the euphoria that one observes on such occasions, when big, fiercely perspiring, tobacco spitting and flatulent men pile upon one another in the infield, and with utter indifference to the incredible effluvium that permeates their lungs? Is the matrix of this phenomenon not the sensation, albeit fleeting, of having triumphed over the ephemerality and vileness of the body, of having won a victory over mortality itself?”

”Scooter, I couldn’t agree with you more.” Murcer responded. ”And this elation that we witness is hardly limited to the actual participants, but is, in fact, shared by those who follow them; people whose lives— bereft of heroic possibilities—oblige them to identify with the transcendent achievements of others, and whose joy can actually turn night into day when, in the immediate aftermath of victory, they will sometimes set their stores and automobiles on fire. I would go so far as to say that man invented competitive athletics, and the sportsplex with the skyboxes, that he might create for himself an opportunity to win and, in the winning, experience his apotheosis.”

What could I add to that to make my point? When you consider what we gave up to protect his friends and intimates from a little self-indulgence and hyper-activity, it becomes quite clear that a reassessment of the Howe issue is very much in order. I don’t mean to minimize the gravity of the concerns or to appear insensitive, but listen: I don’t have any friends or intimates. How many might he have? Three? Five! In a year when we could certainly have used a championship, a year of biblical floods, a terrorist bombing in New York City and Billy Ray Cyrus (and in which, let me tell you, I had more than my share of personal and emotional problems), our chance to get one was sacrificed to the convenience of what can’t amount to more than a handful of people.

Are we going to repeat this mistake next year when who knows what fresh horrors nature, the Third World and the music industry have in store for us, and when many of us are also due for a checkup?


Schindler’s List: Murder Kills Death

Recently, when a visiting friend who’d never seen it brought it with him, I watched Schindler’s List again. I can report that the marvelous subtleties in Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth more than reward a second viewing. But Fiennes aside, I have to say that, for me, watching Schindler’s List has now twice been a vexing experience.

What irritates me about Schindler’s List is that it never goes beyond lamenting man’s inhumanity to man and celebrating the triumph of the human spirit, etc., when it could have thrown at least a quick light on something of consequence that apparently still baffles a lot of us—like what the Nazis were really about!

Normally, of course, the absence of serious probing into the psychodynamics of egregious human behavior would no more disappoint me in a Steven Spielberg film—even one about the Holocaust—than it did in a episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” Spielberg is an enormously gifted filmmaker, but plumbing the nastier depths isn’t something he does and you don’t go to his movies looking for that. (On the contrary, you go in the hope of retrieving a prepubescent innocence.) So if I have a problem with the film’s limitations in this regard it’s only because Spielberg happens to get maddeningly close to revealing where the Nazis were coming from. Indeed, you could say that he gets to within just an inch or so of accomplishing this.

I’m thinking of the scenes in which Goeth, upon shooting two prisoners from his balcony, repairs to his quarters and urinates.

In this sequence Spielberg is showing how chillingly casual a man can be in the performance of the most heinous deeds. And he makes this statement nicely. To go deeper, however, to create a juxtaposition of events that actually pointed to what it is that turns a man into a homicidal sociopath, all Spielberg needed to do (what David Lynch might have done) was have Goeth, in place of urinating, sit down and move his bowels.

I’m serious. Urine is relatively innocuous, but it’s shit that personifies the hideous fate of decay and dissolution that nature has devised for everything corporeal. Shit approximates, and serves daily to remind us of, the condition our bodies themselves will wind up in. And it’s the problem shit signifies, the mother of all problems, the problem of death, that the Nazis and their “Final Solution” were addressing.

Let’s, just for a moment, allow ourselves to recognize what Ernest Becker wanted us to recognize: To reduce to, at the very least, a manageable degree of apprehension, the terror and panic that constitute the human default condition—and which the fact of being mortal causes us—is the real objective of virtually all human behavior.

As I’ve said elsewhere on the subject: “When, for a straightforward and transparent demonstration, we invent the prospect of an afterlife and then adhere to rules of conduct we’ve determined will assure us of admission, we are handing ourselves a comforting shot at surviving death. But another of the myriad ways we’ve concocted or seized upon to make living with an intolerable reality possible is to pursue and amass inordinate financial wealth. The god-like trappings great sums of money buy enable us to feel superior not just to the common man but, more importantly, to the common fate. Still another way with which we ameliorate the fear of oblivion is to aim for a kind of symbolic immortality by producing, say, a book or work of art that we can hope will exert an influence on the world after we’re gone. And many of the ‘faults’ or ‘neuroses’ we develop are also intended to cushion us against the specter of death. Procrastination, for instance, helps us to fashion the illusion that we are halting time.”

But ways to subdue the dread of death are, as I’ve indicated, multitudinous. They are built into and played out in every culture. In fact, the measure of a culture can be taken by the quality and variety of the made up realities it provides to alleviate our death trepidation. What, for example, are the sports competitions we as fans become so absorbed in if not manufactured opportunities to experience a victory over death? For our side to win means not to die, which accounts for the joy that we’re filled by. (For our side to lose means to die, which explains the profound depression that can engulf us—a depression, however, that lifts with the next new season and the renewed chances to win that we’re afforded.) And the innately predatory character of capitalism speaks to the issue of death terror as well. His true motive masked by “practical” considerations, the CEO who downsizes his personnel isn’t, at bottom, concerned with saving a company. He eliminates people in order to feel like a survivor.*

And then there’s genocide.

Blowing away a lot of people is an especially effective death-dread remedy. When guilt and ambivalence are removed from the act—when the act can be rationalized as serving a righteous or noble cause, like the extirpation of an inferior or evil race that’s corrupting a divine plan—it’s without equal, the ultimate way to feel like a survivor. Mussolini’s son, in a state of euphoria while dropping bombs on the Ethiopians and, in an infamous remark, describing the sight of incinerating flesh as “beautiful,” was only being honest, candidly acknowledging the ultimate high that murder can yield.

“High” meaning, of course, above the body that nature has assigned to extinction.

When we devote ourselves to the preservation of a rainforest we are performing a service for nature that might, come Judgment Day, earn us a special dispensation. When we bulldoze a rainforest we are getting nature out of our face. But when we are killing, when we are exercising destructive force of a supreme magnitude and manifesting a blunt indifference to the notion of the sanctity of life, to the unfinished business of our victims and to the grief of those who loved them, we become what it truly is to be “one” with nature. And the reward, fleeting and costly as it may be, is, once again, unparalleled. Claiming nature’s power and authority for ourselves, merging with the source of death, we stop feeling vulnerable to nature. We achieve a sense of immunity to its victimization of us—a sense of immunity that, in turn, relieves us of the burden our finite bodies inflict on us. In the period of killing we get what we most need and want: we experience ourselves as indestructible.

Murder kills death.

I’ve conceded that it would have been off Spielberg’s spectrum to make even an oblique or passing reference to a reality so repugnant—to step, that is, in shit. But I can still wish he’d been capable of taking the opportunity to maybe, and if only on a subliminal level, jolt and disrupt just a little the reflex of astonishment and incredulity that is our rote response to atrocities. We insist that the cause of human evil is elusive, but it isn’t. We make it so because we’re reluctant to know it. To be conscious of its cause would force us to recognize our own death-denial efforts and would potentially undermine them.

But whether or not we’re prepared to handle the idea that it’s largely our attempts to mitigate an untenable condition that define our behavior—and that, for all practical purposes, make the world go around—it remains true nonetheless. And it’s just as true that a certain percentage of humanity, unable to avail itself of the less malignant death-denial techniques, or finding them insufficient, or seeing through them, will always be willing to become what Elie Wiesel, referring to the Nazis, termed “not human.” It will, in fact, have no recourse but to breach the social contract and enter madness in order to achieve respite from the inhuman reality of living under a death sentence.


*And while we’re making reference to cultural resources and contrivances in the service of death-transcendence: what is the push for “freedom” currently taking place in North Africa and the Middle East about if not to enable these populations to access death anxiety antidotes of which they’ve been deprived? —RL, 2011


You Don’t Know What You’re Doing (or Why You’re Still Fat)

Note: Obese people with authentic medical issues are exempted from the following discussion.

Awhile back I wrote a short humor piece in which I poked fun at a grossly overweight woman.

The piece was called “Peggie (or Sex With a Very Large Woman)”* and it elicited a fair share of irate mail from women who identified with the title character.

“I hate you,” went one typical response. “How could you write such hurtful trash? Do you have any idea what it’s like to struggle all your life with an obesity problem? Do you know what it is to be forced to endure incessant jokes and insults, to torture yourself with one failed diet after another—to think, sometimes, that you might actually have the problem solved only to lapse and have to begin again? Do you know what it is to live with a constant sense of guilt and shame? How could you be so insensitive?”

Okay. I’ll admit to an indulgence of my juvenile side (and, as several other readers felt the need to point out, to producing less than ageless prose as well), but I have to say that I remain unmoved by the pain I’m accused of inflicting.

Why? Because the “obesity problem” to which my correspondents refer is actually their solution to a deeper and more urgent problem. What’s more, it’s a solution that, to judge by their obvious absorption in it, is working very well for them.

Now in order to grasp what I’m driving at it is first necessary to acknowledge something about guilt and shame. To feel guilt and shame is built into our essence—it’s a natural consequence of being mortal. Guilt derives from the sense that we must we have done something terribly wrong to warrant the fate we’ve been assigned. Shame is rooted in our inability to alter our fate, to change the given. We’re incompetent where it really counts.

It’s also necessary to remind ourselves that our natural feelings of guilt and shame, accompanied as they are by the trepidation our mortal condition causes us, make for an intolerable burden that must be relieved if we are to function in the world with even a modest degree of equanimity.

And finally it’s necessary to recognize that, in one way or another, virtually everything we do is designed to mollify our existential dread and anxiety.

Bearing such realities in mind, I’m saying that people with perpetual obesity issues are playing a game with themselves.

Look. One of the countless ways with which we accomplish the reduction of our natural guilt and shame—as well as our death apprehensions—is to find and become obsessed with, other things to feel guilty and ashamed about. I’m speaking of things that (to assure them an authentic gravity) are culturally certified as real and legitimate faults or deficiencies and which, at the same time, are potentially redeemable, that are within our capacity to overcome or transcend. What we do is make them what is essentially wrong with us. Indeed, we make them, in our minds, the very reason for the death sentence we’ve been handed. Implicitly, these fabricated problems also embody a way to secure our salvation. If they are what is fundamentally wrong with us, by defeating them we will be absolved of what is fundamentally wrong with us. If we still must die we will survive our death in heaven.

But here’s the thing. If we succeed in beating the problem we’ve concocted for ourselves we’re returned to where we began. Once the flush of victory wanes we discover that our basic dilemma is still there, that we’re left to nakedly confront the void once again.

So what do we do?

Well if (and exploiting, of course, an innate predilection) we’ve made weight our problem, and if, with dieting and exercise, we’ve managed to overcome this problem, what we do is find an excuse to quit exercising, to go off our diet. Then what we do is renew our struggle and when the process has run its course again we repeat it.

Unless we find another game to play, we play this one into infinity.

Yes, each time we gain weight again the suffering and humiliation we experience is devastating. But the size of our anguish serves to validate the size and legitimacy of our manufactured problem. In order to make the problem feel real and significant enough to work its purpose we need to experience real torment. At bottom, however, for all of the misery it causes us, our weight problem functions as the palliative for a larger misery. The more we flagellate ourselves with it the more we succeed in suppressing our deeper horrors and the more we achieve a measure of peace where it matters most to us.

Say all that to say that for making their weight troubles even more painful, I think fat people should regard “Peggie” as a gift.

*”Peggie (or Sex With a Very Large Woman)” is included in the collection, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot.


The ShatterColors Author Interview

The Shattercolors Magazine Standard Interview—Author Version: Robert Levin
Conducted by Robert Scott Leyse (2008)

(Interview consists of 15 pre-set questions. Authors have published at least one novel or short story/poetry collection.)

1) Why did you begin writing, and how long have you been doing so?
I started writing when I was ten, the day after my mother showed me a booklet of stories that my father, and in his own hand, had written for her. In just weeks my mother had a volume of my collected works to read. Not counting interruptions that are apparently common to the biographies of many writers—intervals devoted to drinking, drug abuse and womanizing—I’ve been writing ever since. Which is to say for some time.

2) What does your writing routine consist of?
I write best in the period that immediately follows waking up. To arrive at this special place more than once a day—and I’ll swear to the death that this is the sole reason—I take frequent naps.

AlexKaplanPhoto-30-20673) Have specific events ever flung you into an extended and productive period of creativity?
Pointed reminders of my mortality have always worked wonders for my productivity.

4) What are common sources of inspiration?
Reading writing that’s superior to mine, especially writing that addresses or touches upon my own themes. That and conversations with people who at once encourage me to express my ideas and challenge me to better articulate them.

5) What does a book need to do to get you to read it from beginning to end?
I rarely read books for entertainment purposes alone. (I use presidential debates for that.) I belong to a generation that read books to learn more about life. I would open a new novel by Hemingway, Steinbeck or Faulkner with the expectation that my consciousness would be raised. To sustain my interest, a book still has to be telling me things I don’t already know.

6) Who are some of the authors you most admire?
I admire, and for a variety of reasons, a great many writers. The five who’ve had the most direct and enduring influence on me are Norman Mailer, Ernest Becker, Alan Harrington, Amiri Baraka (when he was LeRoi Jones) and Dave Barry. Although he was not to my knowledge an author, a major early inspiration was an English teacher named Israel Frank. Another important person in my writing life was a doctor. Daniel Crane.

7) How familiar are you with the literary canon?
I was a lit major in college and I’ve read a great many of the classics. That there remain significant gaps in my reading is something I tend not to flagellate myself over anymore.

8] What’s your take on politics and literary endeavor?
If you’re asking if it’s okay for writers to make a political tract of their fiction I’d say that there have certainly been writers who’ve done that and managed to create exceptional literature in the process. But fictional prose that’s intended to convey a political message is usually too bridled by its agenda for me to take much pleasure in reading it.

9) What are your feelings about formal vs. free verse?
If I were a poet, and I learned early on that I wasn’t, I would probably worry about such details. As a reader, it’s the vision and talent of the poet that concerns me, not the discipline he or she is coming from. Having said that, and having been inundated by classical verse in school, I’m more likely to look into a poem that’s been composed in a modern rather than a traditional manner.

10) Do you feel “flash” fiction (300 words or less) is a viable form, or nothing more than a writing exercise?
It’s an exercise when that’s all that it amounts to. It becomes a legitimate and viable form when a writer who’s using it writes something terrific. For me, however, form always follows content. I might write a piece that by chance came to 300 words, but I would never deliberately confine myself to a pre-fixed word count.

11) When not writing, what do you do for amusement?
You mean besides Googling myself? Well, that’s it. I Google myself.

No. There are times, of course, when it’s absolutely necessary to empty your head of thought. But advancing in age and a considerable distance shy of what I hoped to accomplish by now, I try, when I’m not writing, to not stray too far from it. My choices of recreation tend to be things—books, theater, films—that promise to be intellectually stimulating and to keep my mind sharp.

12) What’s one of the most annoying things you can think of?
What’s guaranteed to spill bad chemicals in my brain is arrogant stupidity.

13) Briefly describe what you consider to be one of your standout childhood pranks.
I’m put in mind of an incident in a nursery school when I was five. Precociously philosophical and already cultivating the maverick persona I would continue to hone throughout my life, I was prepared to question every custom and convention I came across. In this particular case, and in respect to the different uses assigned to various waste disposal receptacles, I found myself challenging what seemed to me to be the arbitrariness of strict designations. Removing my fresh feces from the toilet, I placed them into an adjacent trash basket. (When five minutes later what I’d done met with universal condemnation from my peers and supervisors, I was convinced that I was onto something.)

14) What are your upcoming projects/works in progress?
Edward Albee was ready to punch me in the mouth when I asked him a similar question years ago. Later, in respect to my own work—and with all proportions kept, of course—I would understand his rage. I can lose a piece forever by discussing it. (And it makes no difference if the response I get is negative or positive.) Talking about ideas in the abstract is good—it’s invigorating. But describing something I’m writing, or planning to write, is, in effect, to “publish” it. And with what should have been the final step of the project already taken, I tend to separate from it. The sense of urgency and the emotional engagement with it that I need to go on slips away.

15) Care to conclude with a sweeping philosophical statement?
It’s been a conviction of mine for quite a while that to stifle too much consciousness of our mortal condition—or to twist and belie the unacceptable fact of it—constitute the true objectives of virtually everything we do. We can immerse ourselves in endless discussions about the economic, social, political, psychological, historical and cultural factors that determine and shape our beliefs and behavior, but when we do that we are obfuscating the most important factor: the need, constant, urgent and universal—and demanding the cultivation of all manner of evasions, illusions and delusions—to mollify our terror of extinction.

I know how disagreeable this notion is, even to people inclined to concede the truth of it. To acknowledge what’s really driving us leaves us to confront precisely what we’re trying to flee. We want to stay ignorant of where we’re coming from and with good reason. But considering what’s going on in the world right now, the failure to recognize for what they are the distortions of reality that we concoct and entertain in order to deny the prospect of oblivion can come at a very high price for everyone—a price that’s greater than the rewards. The Muslim suicide bombers who’ve discovered a quick and certain passage to eternal life (the objection to a Western presence in the Middle East is only a rationalization), and the Christians who helped to twice elect a dangerously feckless president because he professed to share their belief in death-transcending myths are just two of the more salient demonstrations of my point.

Now if you were to ask me what I think writers are for I would say, with my bias duly noted, that it’s to enlighten us on this issue (and its myriad secular as well as religious aspects). And I think that authors, however edgy, deep and “serious” they may be, who ignore or skirt the critical dynamic of death denial—who don’t in some way attempt to remind readers of the real purpose of their actions—are only reinforcing the reader’s willful innocence. They’re writing, in essence, what amount to children’s books.

Writings & Miscellaneous

Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC

Against Mental Health: Short Stories


“A writer of talent and intelligence.” — Irving Louis Horowitz

“Distinguished quality…profound emotion.” —Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agrawal

“Some real gold in here.”—B.D. Charles


Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press