Sunday, December 04, 2016
Belén Fernández in Jacobin:
The late Alexander Cockburn, reflecting on the work of decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist and neoliberal warmonger extraordinaire Thomas Friedman, once observed: “Friedman’s is an industrial, implacable noise, like having a generator running under the next table in a restaurant. The only sensible thing to do is leave.”
But while generators at least serve a rather obvious function, the same can’t usually be said of Friedman, who has just spewed out his latest unnecessarily humongous book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.
In the nearly eight hundred pages that comprise my electronic version of the manuscript, there is approximately one glimmer of hope: the point at which Friedman remarks that this is “maybe my last book.”
The title Thank You for Being Late is a reference to Friedman’s realization that when his Washington, DC breakfast companions are a few minutes tardy, he can use the time not only to people-watch and eavesdrop on neighboring conversations but also to have ideas. Who knew?
Ethan Siegel in Forbes:
Perhaps the greatest discovery of all announced in 2016 was the direct detection of gravitational waves. Even though they had been predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity 101 years prior, it took the development of a laser interferometer sensitive to ripples in space that would displace two mirrors separated by multiple kilometers by less than 10^-19 meters, or 1/10,000th the width of a proton. This finally came to pass during LIGO's 2015 data run, and two bona fide black hole-black hole merger events unambiguously popped out of the data. But how does physics actually allow this? Mārtiņš Kalvāns wants to know:
This question has puzzled me for a long time. Articles about LIGO discovery state that some percentage of black hole merger mass was radiated away, leaving [a] resulting black hole smaller than [the] sum of [the] original mergers. Yet it is accepted that nothing escapes black holes [...] So my question is: how was energy radiated from black hole mergers?
This is a really deep question, and goes straight to the heart of black hole physics and general relativity.
How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat: Defending the liberal project is a Sisyphean task in part because successfully inculcating liberal norms leads to habits that weaken the ability to sustain them
Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:
In the Western world, the percentage of people who say that it is essential to live in a democracy is in precipitous decline. In the United States, only 19 percent of millennials agree that it would be illegitimate for the military to take control of government. The president-elect routinely speculates about authoritarian policies, like stripping citizenship from those who burn the American flag in protest.
During a bygone crisis in global politics, when the liberal order was under sustained attack, Friedrich Hayek published this diagnosis of the challenge before liberals:
If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. This may be inevitable because no statement of an ideal that is likely to sway men’s minds can be complete: it must be adapted to a given climate of opinion, presuppose much that is accepted by all men of the time, and illustrate general principles in terms of issues with which they are concerned.
The passage resurfaced this week when Will Wilkinson, in-house philosopher at the Niskanen Center, cited it to suggest that the Sisyphean task of saving liberalism is now ours, the boulder at our feet, the struggle of the hill looming once again.
“If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance,” he wrote. “The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And the liberal, open society will again face a crisis of faith.”
Across the Western world, liberals are grappling with how to execute that project. And while I have no pat answer, I do see an obstacle to success that’s worth understanding.
On Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts
Not for me so much do I care
what it means—
the parent smiling while
her child’s skating,
cutting figure eights over
a pond’s ice,
veil between two worlds.
One- a world to laugh & breathe in.
The other, you drown in.
Or, seeing something
fall from the sky—
who speaks for
him or her that never grew wings
or simply dreamed the possible—
mention the torturer’s horse
casually scratching its ass,
see how quickly one’s thoughts turn
soft & nuzzy.
Now is the time
to further expand the metaphor:
Off goes the gilded Jolly Roger,
a smiley face
o’er its skull & bones.
At the tiller, a pirate steering,
tacking further, each instant
more distant from those
casually orphaned of human love and care.
See how it gathers speed with all the available air.
Auden's Musee des Beaux Art
Andrew O'Hehir in Salon:
How much of the “news” is fake? How much of reality is “real”? After an election cycle driven by lies, delusions and propaganda — including lies about lies, multiple layers of fake news and meta-fake news — we are about to install a fake president, elected by way of the machineries of fake democracy. The country that elected him is fake too, at least in the sense that the voters who supported Donald Trump largely inhabit an imaginary America, or at least want to. They think it’s an America that used to exist, one they heard about from their fathers and grandfathers and have always longed to go back to. It’s not. Their America is an illusion that has been constructed and fed to them through the plastic umbilicus of Fox News and right-wing social media to explain the anger and disenfranchisement and economic dislocation and loss of relative privilege they feel. All of which are real, if not necessarily honorable; it represents the height of liberal uselessness to keep on quarreling about whether Trump’s fabled “white working class” suffers real economic pain or is just a cesspool of racism. That argument is really about other things, to be sure: It’s about whether the Democratic Party — whose long-promised era of permanent demographic hegemony and middle-class multiculturalism keeps being delayed into the indefinite future, defeat after defeat after defeat — requires a major reconstruction or just a little cosmetic surgery. Meanwhile, out in the pseudo-reality of Trumpian America, racial resentment and economic suffering are so profoundly intertwined that there’s no way to disentangle them. Arguments that the so-called left should pretty much ignore the deplorables who keep on voting against their own interests, or should abandon “identity politics” in quest of some middle-road economic populism that blends Bill Clinton and FDR, are both missing the point. In a nation where a candidate who won the popular vote by roughly 2.5 million did not win the election, we are no longer dealing with reality, at least as it used to exist.
Hillary Clinton was the ultimate Establishment candidate facing the ultimate outsider, and also a quintessential old-media personality facing a veritable Voldemort of social media. Given that, she came pretty damn close to pulling it off. But Clinton was also a candidate from reality facing a shimmering celebrity avatar, a clownish prankster who took physical form in our universe but who could say anything and do anything because he was self-evidently not real. That disadvantage proved impossible to overcome. Furthermore, Trump’s supporters may be delusional and misguided, but they aren’t half as dumb as they often look to “coastal elites.” Many of them understood, consciously or otherwise, that his incoherent promises could not be taken literally and that his outrageous personality did not reflect the realm of reality. They were sick of reality, and you can’t entirely blame them. For lots of people in “middle America” (the term is patronizing, but let’s move on) reality has been so debased, or so much replaced, as to seem valueless.
Christina Beck in The Christian Science Monitor:
One hundred and eighty-four years ago today, a literary giant was born to a small, struggling family in Pennsylvania. Yet within just a few decades, Louisa May Alcott won herself both a reputation and the hearts and minds of generations with her prose. Google Doodle creator Sophia Diao decided to depict Ms. Alcott with her three sisters in commemoration of her birthday and her most beloved work, "Little Women." Alcott was born in 1832, the daughter of prominent (but impecunious) Transcendentalist intellectual Amos Bronson Alcott. Mr. Alcott moved his family around frequently, finally settling in Concord, Mass., in 1840 when Louisa was eight years old. In Concord, the Alcotts found, if not earthly wealth, then a bounty of friends and intellectual sparring partners. Prominent Transcendentalists and New England intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau also lived in town, as did Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the midst of this intellectual bounty, however, the Alcotts continued to struggle financially, forcing Louisa to take jobs as a school teacher and a seamstress. As abolitionists and New Englanders, the Alcotts supported the North during the American Civil War, and Louisa took her commitment to the cause a step further when she served as a nurse in Union hospitals.
Her experiences during the Civil War inspired her first book, "Hospital Sketches," which won her some small notice in the literary world. "Hospital Sketches," although rarely read today, served to highlight Louisa’s writing talent, and attracted the notice of a publisher. That publisher met with her father, and the two men struck a deal, urging Louisa to write a book for young girls. Contingent on Louisa’s writing was a book contract for her father. At first, Louisa was reluctant to write the book, saying that it was not her preferred type of writing. Yet her manuscript, called "Little Women," which drew on her own experiences with her three sisters, quickly became a massive success, finally lifting the Alcotts out of their longstanding poverty.
Saturday, December 03, 2016
Jerusalem’s veneer of harmony, tolerance and inclusiveness is as thin and as alluring as the fine layer of gold covering the gray lead dome standing on the top of the contested Temple Mount, or the Haram al-Sharif as it is called in Arabic. Timeless conflict brews under the beautiful surface of the sacred city, whose many names are yet another manifestation of the continuing rivalry around the “ownership” of its holy sites and symbolic history. The controversial resolution passed by Unesco in October, which attempted to classify the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, as a part of the Muslim Al Aqsa Mosque compound, is yet another step in this long tradition of conflict.
This everlasting rivalry, paradoxically, has only enhanced the beauty and cultural richness of Jerusalem. The various churches and mosques, each competing to have the tallest structure in the sacred city, have invested a fortune in building magnificent minarets and bell towers meant to own the Jerusalem skyline. The warring Christian sects, in their struggle to dominate the sacred Church of the Holy Sepulcher (a struggle that at times has led to almost comical fistfights among priests, monks and ministers), have made great efforts to enhance their part of the space and make it outshine the others. In the same tradition, the great resources allocated by the Israelis to restore and celebrate Jerusalem’s Jewish past have made it an attractive destination for travelers from all around the world.
Kathleen Collins was a professor of film history at New York’s City College who made a groundbreaking contribution to the subject that she taught. “Losing Ground” (1982), which Collins wrote and directed, was one of the first feature-length dramas made by an African American woman. Collins, who was also an activist and playwright, never got the chance to make another film. She died in 1988, at age 46, after a bout with breast cancer — a life, and a life’s work, cut brutally short.
“Losing Ground” is the story of a marriage in crisis and an intimate portrait of the black creative class in New York in the 1970s. Sarah, a promising young academic, is married to Victor, an older and somewhat louche painter who has just made his first major sale to a museum. (Notably, his work is acquired not by an American institution but by the Louvre.) To celebrate, they rent a summer house in a majority-Puerto Rican community in the Hudson Valley, where Victor becomes smitten with the local culture (and a local woman) while Sarah starves for intellectual and emotional attention, until one of her students asks her to come back to the city to star in a film of his.
Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker this past spring, called “Losing Ground” “a nearly lost masterwork” and noted ruefully that “[h]ad it screened widely in its time, it would have marked film history.”
Sometimes you change your mind about a writer. Perhaps, when you first read them you were only pretending to admire what you’d been told to admire. But also your tastes change. For instance, at 25 I was more open to writers telling me how to live and how to think; by 65 I had come to dislike didacticism. I don’t want to be told how to think and how to live by, say, Bernard Shaw, or D H Lawrence or the later Tolstoy. I don’t like art – especially theatrical art – whose function seems to be to reassure us that we are on the right side. Sitting there complacently agreeing with a playwright that war is bad, that capitalism is bad, that bad people are bad. “You don’t make art out of good intentions,” is one of Flaubert’s wiser pronouncements.
Sometimes, when our tastes become more defined, they become narrower. But this doesn’t have to be the case. I want to address a rarer changing of the mind, which is altogether more enriching: when a writer you had previously been indifferent to, indeed actively despised, suddenly makes sense to you, and you realise – with, yes, a kind of joy – that at last you see the point of them.
I first read EM Forster when an English master handed out a list of Great Books to be read one summer holiday. A Passage to India was on that list. I still have the Penguin edition – a reprint of 1960, costing three shillings and sixpence – in which I read the novel. There are no notes in the margin, not a single cry of “Irony!” It clearly made little impression on me. Later, of my own volition, when I was about 20, I read A Room With a View, and actively began to take against Forster.
Jonathan Safran Foer in The Guardian:
The first time my father looked at me was on a screen, using technology developed to detect flaws in the hulls of ships. His father, my grandfather, could only rest his hand on my grandmother’s belly and imagine his infant in his mind. But by the time I was conceived, my father’s imagination was guided by technology that gave shape to sound waves rippling off my body. The Glasgow-based Anglican obstetrician Ian Donald, who in the 1950s helped bring ultrasound technology from shipyard to doctor’s office, had devoted himself to the task out of a belief that the images would increase empathy for the unborn, and make women less likely to choose abortions. The technology has also been used, though, to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy – because of deformity, because the parent wants a child of a certain sex. Whatever the intended and actual effects, it is clear that the now iconic black and white images of our bodies before we are born mediate life and death. But what prepares us to make life-and-death decisions? My wife and I debated learning the sex of our first child before birth. I raised the issue with my uncle, a gynaecologist who had delivered more than 5,000 babies. He was prone neither to giving advice nor anything whiffing of spirituality, but he urged me, strongly, not to find out. He said, “If a doctor looks at a screen and tells you, you will have information. If you find out in the moment of birth, you will have a miracle.”
I don’t believe in miracles, but I followed his advice, and he was right. One needn’t believe in miracles to experience them. But one must be present for them. Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that, unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation”. Simply put, the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth – redefining “text” from what fills the hundreds of pages of a novel, to a line of words and emoticons on a phone’s screen – the less likely and able we are to care. That’s not even a statement about the relative worth of the contents of a novel and a text, only about the time we spend with each.
Costica Bradatan in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
For some, he was one of the most subversive thinkers of his time — a 20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor. Many, especially in his youth, thought him to be a dangerous lunatic. According to others, however, he was just a charmingly irresponsible young man, who posed no dangers to others — only to himself perhaps. When his book on mysticism went to the printers, the typesetter — a good, God-fearing man — realizing how blasphemous its contents were, refused to touch it; the publisher washed his hands of the matter and the author had to publish the blasphemy elsewhere, at his own expense. Who was this man?
Emil Cioran (1911–1995) was a Romanian-born French philosopher and author of some two dozen books of savage, unsettling beauty. He is an essayist in the best French tradition, and even though French was not his native tongue, many think him among the finest writers in that language. His writing style is whimsical, unsystematic, fragmentary; he is celebrated as one of the great masters of aphorism. But the “fragment” was for Cioran more than a writing style: it was a vocation and a way of life; he called himself “un homme de fragment.”
Amanda Gefter in Nautilus:
When they met, Einstein wasn’t Einstein yet. He was just Albert Einstein, a kid, about 17, with a dark cloud of teenage angst and a violin. Michele Besso was older, 23, but a kindred spirit. Growing up in Trieste, Italy he had shown an impressive knack for mathematics, but he was kicked out of high school for insubordination and had to go live with his uncle in Rome. Einstein could relate. At the Swiss Polytechnic, where he was now a student, his professors resented his intellectual arrogance, and had begun locking him out of the library out of spite.
Their first encounter was on a Saturday night in Zurich, 1896. They were at Selina Caprotti’s house by the lake for one of her music parties. Einstein was handsome—dark hair, moustache, soulful brown eyes. Besso was short with narrow, pointed features and a thick pile of coarse black hair on his head and chin. Einstein had a look of cool detachment. Besso had the look of a nervous mystic. As they chatted, Einstein learned that Besso worked at an electrical machinery factory; Besso learned that Einstein was studying physics. Perhaps they recognized something in each other then: They both wanted to get to the truth of things.
Besso would go on to become a sidekick, of sorts, to Einstein—a sounding board, as Einstein put it, “the best in Europe,” asking the right questions that would inspire Einstein to find the right answers. At times, though, he would seem to be something more—a collaborator, perhaps, making suggestions, working through calculations.
Julie Beck in The Atlantic:
Language is the hallmark of humanity—it allows us to form deep relationships and complex societies. But we also use it when we’re all alone; it shapes even our silent relationships with ourselves. In his book, The Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough gives a historical overview of “inner speech”—the more scientific term for “talking to yourself in your head.”
Fernyhough, a professor at Durham University in the U.K., says that inner speech develops alongside social speech. This idea was pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who studied children in the 1920s and noted that when they learned to talk to other humans, they also learned how to talk to themselves, first out loud, and eventually, in their heads.
Inner speech, Fernyhough writes, isn’t bound by many of the conventions of verbal speech. For one, we can produce it much faster when we don’t have to go at the pace required to use tongues and lips and voice boxes. One researcher the book cites clocks inner speech at an average pace of 4,000 words per minute—10 times faster than verbal speech. And it’s often more condensed—we don’t have to use full sentences to talk to ourselves, because we know what we mean.
But it does maintain many of the characteristics of dialogue. We may imagine an exchange with someone else, or we may just talk to ourselves. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation. Our minds contain many different perspectives, and they can argue or confer or talk over each other.
Video length: 13:57
Maureen O'Connor in The New York Times:
I started reading “The Women Who Made New York” in October, around the time the presidential race got ugly — and extra New York-y. Speaking at a Trump rally in Ocala, Fla., former Mayor Rudy Giuliani ridiculed Hillary Clinton’s work to rebuild New York after Sept. 11. “I was there that day,” Giuliani said. “I don’t remember seeing Hillary Clinton.” Newspapers published those quotes — accompanied by pictures of Giuliani and Clinton standing shoulder to shoulder at ground zero on Sept. 12, when elected officials were first permitted onto the site. “I made a mistake,” Giuliani later admitted. He had forgotten the woman was also there. Forgetting — and belatedly remembering — women is a historiographical tradition as old as history itself. “The Women Who Made New York” positions itself as an antidote to that process. Written by Julie Scelfo and illustrated by Hallie Heald, the volume features 126 female artists, activists, politicians, criminals and tycoons. Legends like Brooke Astor, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Anna Wintour and Debbie Harry receive authoritative write-ups that also pay tribute to the lesser-known women who cleared the path for them. You’ve heard of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer whose haunting performance of “Strange Fruit” described lynching in agonizing, unforgettable language. But what about Ethel Waters, the daughter of a young rape victim who rose out of poverty to become one of the first Harlem musicians to make it big on Broadway? Six years before Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” Waters began performing “Supper Time,” a song about a woman discovering her husband has been lynched. “A number so moving it routinely stopped the show,” Scelfo writes, bringing contemporary social commentary to the Great White Way.
Equally enriching is Scelfo’s treatment of women usually relegated to “wife of” status. A chapter called “The Builders” opens with a paean to Emily Warren Roebling, who completed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her engineer husband fell ill. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appears in “The Preservationists,” in an entry that focuses on her work to preserve historical buildings. The famous men in Jackie’s life appear only in asides — or when their presence serves a greater purpose, like the time Jackie choreographed a kiss on the steps of City Hall while campaigning to save a Park Avenue landmark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jackie O profile so resolutely focused on substance instead of style — to the point that I felt a little bit deprived, until I turned the page and saw Heald’s dreamy watercolor portrait of the windswept first lady in a sumptuous roll-neck sweater. At last, I thought, a book that indulges my superficiality without wasting any words on it.
I live with ghosts.
Laggard ghosts who wear their fatigue like a sheet
Petulant, unrepentant ghosts who never sleep
Ghosts like mouth sores
Ghosts that look me in the eye at midday
and buzz in my ears in the dead of night
Chinese laundry ghosts
Ghosts that tap and tease and taunt
Politically correct ghosts
Ghosts of chance
Mami and Papi ghosts
The ghosts of all my Nochebuenas past.
My ghosts and I,
we have what you’d call this complicated relationship
At this very moment, they tap tap tap tap tap
on the back of my head,
just behind my ears.
They know I’m listening, I pretend that I’m not.
But with every ghostly tap my spine vibrates
like a tuning fork.
If I could, I would leap to grab the greatest ghost
of them all and wring his neck like a wet towel.
But my life offers no such satisfactions.
The ghosts extract their pound of flesh
gram by gram, day by day.
You cannot sneeze them away.
They do not respond to treatment or medication
(my therapist is a ghost).
By now, the ghosts are more me than me.
One of them wrote this poem.
by Gustavo Pérez Firmat
from Paper Dance
Persea Books, 1995
Friday, December 02, 2016
Thomas Pakenham in the New York Review of Books:
In 1664 John Evelyn, diarist, country gentleman, and commissioner at the court of Charles II, produced his monumental book on trees: Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees. It was a seventeenth-century best seller. Evelyn was a true son of the Renaissance. His book is learned and witty and practical and passionate all by turns. No later book on trees has ever had such an impact on the British public. His message? A very modern one. We are in desperate need of trees for all kinds of reasons. Get out there with your spade and plant one today.
Despite the catastrophes that crippled London in the next two years—the great plague and the great fire—Evelyn lived to see the book reprinted four times. A century later it was reissued with elegant copperplate illustrations and an exhaustive commentary to bring it up to date. Later editions of the book (renamed Silva) have followed, and many authors have tried to write in the spirit of Evelyn. But somehow Sylva has always remained head and shoulders above its successors. That is, until the present. The two new books on trees under review are both outstanding. In different ways their authors share many of Evelyn’s best qualities.
Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees treads closest in the footsteps of Sylva. Evelyn, it is true, was more adventurous in his choice of trees to be described in detail. He covers an astonishing range: a tally of thirty-one genera, which include newly introduced trees from the American East Coast, like red oaks and Weymouth pines, as well as trees that were seen as exotic in England, such as the cedar of Lebanon and the Irish strawberry-tree.
Stephen Hawking in The Guardian:
As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.
And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.
So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.
It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere.
I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
Imagine a calendar. Chances are you just thought about a rectangular grid, with time progressing from the top-left to the bottom-right. But around one percent of you may have pictured something different—a V, for example, or a hoop encircling your head.
These weird shapes are called “calendar forms.” They’re a type of synesthesia—the mental phenomenon where people involuntarily map one type of sensation onto another. Some associate letters or numbers with colors, others taste sounds or see smells, and people with calendar forms map time onto space. Sure, everyone does that to an extent—for example, we might picture numbers on a line going from left to right. But calendar forms are especially vivid and perceptually real—people actually see the units of time occupying the space around their bodies.
The English polymath Francis Galton first described calendar forms in 1880, and the phenomenon has been rarely studied since. But Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego who has been studying synesthesia for a long time, has been slowly amassing and studying people with this odd perceptual quirk.
He met one such person, a 25-year-old woman named Emma, a year ago. Her calendar is a hula hoop, which stretches horizontally in front of her and touches her chest at one point—always December 31st, no matter the actual time of year. Emma uses her calendar to organize her life, attaching events to the various months and zooming around the hoop to access them.
Video length: 11:00
I gave up heroin and went home and began the methadone treatment administered at the outpatient clinic and I didn’t have much else to do except get up each morning and watch TV and try to sleep at night, but I couldn’t, something made me unable to close my eyes and rest, and that was my routine, until one day I couldn’t stand it any more and I bought myself a pair of black swimming trunks at a store in the centre of town and I went to the beach, wearing the trunks and with a towel and a magazine, and I spread my towel not too far from the water and then I lay down and spent a while trying to decide whether to go into the water or not, I could think of lots of reasons to go in but also some not to (the children playing at the water’s edge, for example), until at last it was too late and I went home, and the next morning I bought some sunscreen and I went to the beach again, and at around twelve I headed to the clinic and got my dose of methadone and said hello to some familiar faces, not friends, just familiar faces from the methadone line who were surprised to see me in swimming trunks, but I acted as if there was nothing strange about it, and then I walked back to the beach and this time I went for a dip and tried to swim, though I couldn’t, and that was enough for me, and the next day I went back to the beach and put on sunscreen all over and then I fell asleep on the sand, and when I woke up I felt very well rested, and I hadn’t burned my back or anything, and this went on for a week or maybe two ...
Impressive though this is, Cocteau is more, much more than just a cineaste. He came to cinema quite late in life – he was approaching sixty when he made his two most famous films – and before that time had put his swift mind and expressive hands to many other arts. He was a poet, a playwright, a set designer, a theatre director, a novelist, a travel writer, a librettist, a jewellery maker, an actor and an autobiographer. There is a famous trick photograph by Philippe Halsman, used on the cover of Arnaud’s book, that shows a six-armed Cocteau, like a chic Parisian Vishnu, wearing a reversed coat of his own design and holding a book, a pen, a pair of scissors, a cigarette…
Combined, his many talents brought him early fame. Ezra Pound said that Cocteau was the best writer in Europe, and in the 1920s he was the figure who at once presided over and epitomised the miraculous, jubilant Paris of les années folles, luring rich patrons and hard-up artists to the most exciting nightspot in town, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, teaching them to love the high life of jazz and cocktails (often referred to as Coct-ails) while bashing away gleefully on a drum set. The final coup of his first, dazzling period came in 1930, with the staging of La voix humaine, which thrilled almost everyone. With the single exception of one play, La machine infernale, he did not fare nearly so well in the later 1930s or during the occupation, when he seemed to be far too chummy with the more cultivated members of the German army.