The Return of Dirty Harry

Now, Dirty Harry was an X-L cop
And when he told Spider Mayo to stop
The Spider turned to see who be talkin’,
And kep’ walkin’.

The street was crowded. The day was hot.
He pushed on through and broke into a trot
But Harry’d already started to run,
And had out the gun.

Spider ducked down an alley and disappeared.
Harry ran in there after him and peered,
And couldn’t see much in the shadows at all
Till he looked up the wall.

On a ladder above him three floors high
A black-widow silhouette crawled for sky.
Harry holstered the Magnum and started to climb.
Had him this time.

Up top the Spider was three roofs away.
Harry had no time to stop and survey—
He come up to the first gap on the run
And landed scrambling for the second one.

A plastic chute for construction debris
Was the only way down that Spider could see:
He crawled in starfish and, clawing around,
Worked his way down

Until Harry landed on him astride.
They fought like a rancid burger inside
A convulsing gut till they came unstuck
And fell in the truck.

Spider was already down on the street
And running when Harry got to his feet.
He took out the Magnum and hopped to the ground.
Wasn’t no one around—

Just Spider going. An approaching van.
Harry took up the stance and raised his hand.
A light wind streamlined his aim and his clothes.
He held the pose.

But Spider tore open the driver’s door,
Jumped into the van, knocked the guy to the floor
And drove back at Harry, foot to the mat—
Laid it out flat.

Harry stood there, put three slugs through the glass,
And jumped on a parked car as the van veered past,
But it slammed in broadside as hard as it could,
And he fell off the hood.

Spider screech-stopped, reversed and, squealing wheels,
Roared back at Harry still crouched on his heels—
And shattered the light bulb out in his head!
He had to be dead

But Spider would not be played for no chump:
He backed over Harry till the wheels went bump,
Then put it in forward and did it again
And again, up to ten,

And drove away feeling that he’d been firm,
Left him in the street like a squeezed-out worm,
And before Harry would have had time to nod
He was facing God.

“Well, Harry,” God told him, “you sure blew that.
I was countin’ on you to ice that rat.
I mean I've seen screw-ups,” he thumped the desk,
“But this is grotesque!

“Spider Mayo’s done things too bad to name!
If he does any more now, you’re to blame!
I’m not threatening you—I know you’re a guy
Who’d spit in My Eye—

“But damn it, Harry, you’re my right-hand man,
And you’re up here somewhat prior to plan!
You owe Me!—and I want one more k.o.
Go down there and git Me: Spider Mayo!”

Now, Harry’d as soon have thrown down his badge
And turned in his car keys at the garadge,
But he figured when it came from this high
He oughta comply.

He lay on the pavement with open eyes,
Already beginning to draw the flies.
The sun overhead returned his look
Till his retinas cooked.

The police were waving the traffic through,

Restraining the crowd; the ambulance crew
Rolled out the stretcher and opened it up
When Harry—sat up!

Bloody tire tracks crossed his chest and his legs.
His ribs were a bagful of broken eggs.
But he got to his feet as the onlookers gawked,
And walked.

Purple hollows hung under his eyes;
Reporters surrounded him, dwarfed by his size.
One held a microphone at him and said,
“We thought you were dead.”

He stopped and looked at her. His skin was gray.
What she saw in his eyes is hard to say;
She was standing there with the mic still on
When Harry was gone.

“Dirty Harry is dead,” she said on TV,
“But he’s back on the street and it looks to me
Like whoever he’s after’s chances are slim,
And I wouldn’t be him.

“Meanwhile the mayor was quoted as saying
That Harry’s been linked to last week’s slaying
Of one of the lords of the inner city,
And it wasn’t pretty.”

Shot of the mayor. “He’s got to be stopped.
All he is now is a renegade cop.
Some private idea of good and bad
Has driven him mad.”

“The mayor would not go into detail
About his own dealings with Spider Mayo.
Informed sources say this could get scary.
Good luck, Harry.”
He sat at the bar with a sense of mission,
The only one watching the television.
Somebody waved in front of the screen
And said, “Sweetheart, you’re green.”

He was too stiff even to turn his head,
And might not have even if he hadn’t been dead.
The bartender said, “Ignore that queer.
I’ll getcha a beer.”

The drag queen hung onto his shoulder
And Harry, if possible, got colder.
She said, “So you’re showing a little mold—

You're not that old.”

He got up from the stool and limped outside;
What he needed now was a place to hide.
The floozy followed him into the street:
“Let’s get something to eat.”

She stopped at a window to fix her hair
When she turned around he wasn’t there,
A pang went through her for his quiet strength
And potential length.

He fiddled a lock and went inside.
A woman looked up from the late show and sighed.
He sat down as was his habit to do
And watched too,

His hands on his knees, his eyes straight ahead.
She observed him a while before she said,
“Well, Harry, I’m glad you’re keeping in touch,
But you haven’t changed much.”

In bed she fingered him where he’d been scarred.
She said, “Hon, you’re cold but you sure are hard.
It’s times like this that I wonder whether
We should get back together.

“That look in your eyes you used to get when you came,
It’s there all the time now—but just the same,
I don’t know, Harry, it’d never last.
The past is past.”

When she fell asleep he got up tip-toe,
Uncovered his police radio
And got the location of the tail
On Spider Mayo.

A flop house. Night. He stayed out of the light
Till the unmarked car circled out of sight.
The desk jockey opened his mouth to ask,
Caught Harry’s look and just let him go past.

Harry turned a knob, didn’t make a sound,
Pushed the door open, paused, glanced around,
Went in and closed it without so much as a breath,
And waited for Spider Mayo like death.

A match flared, showed Spider’s face in the dark,
Lit his ciggy and burned while he remarked,
“Harry, it ain’t only you look like hell,
You startin’ to smell.

“The chick on the news says you fuckin’ dead.
‘Bout time somebody put you to bed.”
And holding it out for Harry to catch,
He tossed the match.

Harry hadn’t sniffed: the place was seething
With gas fumes but he hadn’t been breathing.
The room was a furnace. Out in the hall
Spider was sprinkling gasoline all

Over the floor and then touching it off,
Laughing insanely and starting to cough.
Harry limped after him blinded by heat,
Barbecuing his feet.

“Hey, Step-and-a-Half, I’s over here!”
Called Spider when Harry happened to hear
A scream upstairs. The whole place was on fire.
The scream got higher.

Spider laughed gleefully, threw in the can,
Gave Harry the finger and turned and ran.
No telling how much time it would cost him
Now if he lost him.

He staggered upstairs and kicked in a door.
This whole moral effort—what was it for?
A young woman’s face showed brand-new horror
As he looked around for her.

He soaked a blanket, grabbed her to tie her
And carried her back down into the fire.
When they made it outside, no Spider there,
And most of Harry was medium-rare.

The girl reached up to kiss him but quickly found
She’d much rather Harry just put her down.
Still, he left her with a sense of elation
That may have been more than just smoke-inhalation.
Next morning the mayor spoke to the press.
“Where Harry is now is anyone’s guess.
Last night he burned down an entire hotel.
The man’s not well.”

“I love him!” the girl said that Harry had saved.
“He may be dead but he’s awfully brave,
And I’m willing to give him my maidenhood
If it’ll do any good!”

“That creep,” said Spider, “got nothin’ on me.
I got me a contracting company
And legitimate deals with city hall,
Is all.”

At the bus station in a TV chair
Harry sat listening to the mayor,
Wrapped in a raincoat and turned-up collar
Till he used up his dollar.

Spider chopped powder with a razor blade,
Rolled a new twenty when the lines were made,
Held a nostril closed, snorted up his share
And passed the other half to the mayor.

He said, “I be the one that takes the heat.
I want that motherfucker off the street.”
The mayor said, “Yeah, I’m doing my best.
Don’t get that shit all over my desk.”

He vacuumed the dust as if with a hose
And sat back holding the bridge of his nose,
Feeling the present tense fill out his clothes
And hearing his office door open—and close.

He tilted back further, peered under his hand,
Unhurried but starting to understand.
A man in a raincoat turned and faced him.
It was a moment before he’d placed him:

His face was bad meat—the skin had melted.
The mayor saw it after he smelt it.
The eyes had gone livid and seemed to stare
At the mayor.

Spider sat wondering what he’d been hit with
And what they could have been cuttin’ this shit with.
The mayor pressed a buzzer and grabbed a phone,
And Spider felt profoundly alone

As Harry advanced on him. He couldn’t scream.
He was paralyzed as if in a dream
Until Harry grabbed him around the throat.
He shrieked, jumped up and brushed at his coat.

“Don’t touch me, you asshole! You fuckin’ dead!”
He backed to the Board Room, holding his head,
And slamming a fourteen-foot oaken door,
Locked it and made for the next one before

Harry kicked through it as smoothly as fate.
Spider locked another and didn’t wait—
He ran screaming as Harry burst through again
And again, up to ten,

Till Spider was racing through the lobby,
Hopelessly stoned and panicked and sobbing.
He rushed through the door to the open air,
And found cops all over city hall square

Holding the crowd that was straining to see
Just how dirty Harry could be.
Then a gasp went up from everyone
As Harry staggered out into the sun,

A botched and putrefied resurrection,

Looming in Spider Mayo’s direction.
Though the cops were there because of the mayor,
They wouldn’t let Spider run anywhere.

He cried, “Harry, I didn’t mean what I done,
I’s just havin’ a little fun!
You ain’t gonna hold that against some’un!”
But Harry kept comin’.

His ex ducked the cordon, broke away,
And said, “Hon, you left before I could say—
I don’t know, Harry, I guess I’m a jerk,
But I think it could work!”

He didn’t slow down. At his other side
Was the girl for whom he’d got himself fried.
She said, “When you carried me out of that fire
You touched my desire!”

The drag queen grabbed his hand to implore him
While the newswoman backed along before him.
She said, “Harry, can you give me a moment?
Don’t you have any comment?”

He stopped and looked at her. His skin was cracked.
Their entire affair had been eye contact.
But he lurched ahead, having no time to linger,
And left the queen still holding his fingers.

Spider was now in the psychotic stages
Of the worst drug vision he’d had for ages.
Harry’s shadow fell over him like a tree’s.
He dropped to his knees

And said, “I’ve sinned! The mayor made me do it!
You wouldn’t know without you been through it!
Dealin’ drugs was my way out of the gutter!”
He gave a shudder

As Harry reached for him with his good hand.
He said, “Harry, you gots to understand
A mo’ ruthless sense of reality!
You just like me!

You try livin’ there! You don’t want to hear it
But my childhood twisted my little spirit!”
He pleaded, with all the tears he could summon,
But the hand kept comin’

And grabbed him. He clawed at Harry’s face
And the flesh came away without leaving a trace.
He gaped up at a skull with blow-dried hair
And yellow eyes that continued to stare

Into Spider’s soul. But the soul was gone:
Whether the revelation had been too strong
Or whether he’d snorted too much meth,
He was scared to death.

Harry put him down with the gentleness bred
Of the strange brotherhood of the dead,
And stood for a moment over Spider
With the tact of an insider.

To the women he turned his face of bone.
At least it was clear his teeth were his own,
But they weren’t all that sure now they wanted to marry

Nevertheless they stood there undaunted
Waiting to see which one he wanted—
But he reeled and stumbled toward the crowd:
It screamed so loud

That he faltered back and groped in the dark,
A wino about to pass out in the park.
An arm slipped out of his sleeve to the ground and
He tripped and fell over into the fountain

Where he lay face-down, savoring release as
He drifted slowly apart into pieces.
An eye let go, fell away from the skull
With a thud that was underwater-dull,

Slid over the bottom toward the hole,
Paused at the rim, a reluctant soul,
Took a last look around at what it had been
And slipped in.

The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France

De Sade
Might have been perfectly glad
To have had as his hassock

I love France.

And I love Paris. It doesn’t matter how Disneyfied it gets; it remains the world’s capital, the measure of all cities, and not just for me. In the Middle East they call Beirut “the Paris of the Mediterranean.” They used to, anyway. In Asia Shanghai is
the Paris of the East. In America Montreal is “the Paris of the North.” “When good Americans die,” as Oscar said, “they go to Paris.” And so do bad Irishmen: Oscar is buried there.

And I love the French. Sort of. Their style, their indolence, their cuisine…so much about them endears them to one. But they are not, it must be admitted, sweet-natured. Not warm. They are, to use their own phrase, le peuple le plus désagréable du monde, même entre eux—the snarkiest people in the world, even to each other.

How did this happen? Were they always like that? Is it, as so much is these days, genetic? (See My Racial Profile.) If not, what, or who, could be the cultural antecedent of this manner?

Is it Rabelais, father of the long lunch? “Frugality,” he said, “is for the vulgar.”
My kind of guy. “It is godlike to lend, but to owe is a heroic virtue.”
When he came to die he left this will: “I have nothing; I owe much. I leave the rest to the poor.”

No, there’s too much generosity of spirit there. It can’t be him.

Is it Montaigne, whose suave self-contemplation supplanted the wisdom of the ancients? Too mild. Too tolerant. And he was so deeply inhaled by Shakespeare that we tend to think of him as an Englishman.

Molière, then? That comic genius? No no no, too free of heart. Too funny. (Note though the remark in his Dom Juan that a peasant girl is at a disadvantage compared to a Parisienne, who need only adjust her coiffure to sharpen her allure. Ah, Paris!)

Voltaire? The wit, the very soul of the Enlightenment? "The trouble with honest people is that they're cowards." Hey! Almost! But no, he's simply too polite.

It cannot have been Rousseau, who loved nature and found it morally good. De Sade quashed that: “Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty!”

So it’s not Rousseau. No, it’s the Marquis himself. With him something enters French culture that had not been there before. Suzanne in Diderot’s The Nun suffers, it’s true, including erotic molestation by the Mother Superior, but she is rescued, and never submits.  And Rétif de la Bretonne (he and de Sade hated one another) gave his name to the shoe fetish, known now as retifisme.
We like these on you, girls. We love to see you helpless.

But only the Marquis gives us the whole deal: "There is no more lively sensation than that of pain; its impressions are certain and dependable—they never deceive as may those of the pleasure women perpetually feign and almost never experience." Not a bad psychologist. Cheer up, guys.

After him we get a new cruelty in French culture. I don’t mean Balzac and his books for twelve-year-olds, his gosh-isn’t-it-great manner; or even the torture that is axiomatic in Hugo’s novels.

I don’t just mean Delacroix and his orgiastic scenes of rape and slaughter—

—or the enthusiasm for women of color shown by Baudelaire, Gauguin and Rimbaud, meant to dramatize their, how shall I say, focus, not to say their dominance.

I mean the merciless exposure to which her author subjects Emma Bovary. She, a fool, and her husband, a fool—a doctor, no less, who bungles an operation on his clubfooted patient and causes his leg to be amputated—scurry like bugs under Flaubert’s microscope, his heart as neutral as glass. As Erich Auerbach said, their “world consists of pure stupidity.”  Even the title is a sarcasm, “Madame Bovary,” as if the poor girl were the lady she longs to be. 

Shaved his short hair
And reclined in the raw:
“Madame Bovary, c’est mwaw.”

And what is there, outside of the Marquis, to match her suicide, writhing in agony for days with arsenic in her belly? Anna got it over faster by throwing herself under train wheels; what a moment that must have been. Bad women must be punished, sure, I understand that, but for Emma it’s drawn out to what can only be described as sadistic length.

Here starts an entire mode of narrative. Flaubert’s protégé de Maupassant despises his characters, jeers at them. I love Proust as much as you do, but I want to be at eye-level with Swann; of course he’s a chump, who isn’t, but I don’t want always to be scoffing at him, always to be looking down at him through the Flaubertian lens. 

Has the flaw
That the earthy passages that should make me drool

Just make me want to fish my jeans out of his pool.

Emma has many heirs, like Séverine in Belle de Jour, also married to a doctor. We may consider Bunuel because he regarded Paris as the capital of Spain, even before Franco. Indeed the Marquis makes personal appearances in two of his films, and Severine gets the whipping she dreams of. But not the life.

Torture had always been used for political purposes, as we use it now. The Church used it for religious purposes, but then religion is politics (I propose this as a definition). De Sade's innovation is to have used it for sexual purposes.

He is not spooked by age; his ramrod hero the Duc de Blangis is fifty. Nor is he just a master, like Nietszche; he submits to the whip himself, and Blangis regularly has himself sodomized.

There is no superego in de Sade, no conscience, no heart to be appealed to; this is his fascination and his insolence, and makes him royally dangerous. And, yes, the heart is tricky; it believes anything.

On the other hand he identifies himself with nature, rather like Byron with the raging storm—magnificent, but faintly disappointing; why identify with anything? He supposes his sex drive to be larger than ours—how dare he! And his assumption that tenderness is cowardice doesn't fit quite comfortably, not that he cares for comfort.

But his real sin, if I may so put it, is his seriousness. Libertinage and perversion are fine old traditions, but Casanova and the Earl of Rochester laugh at themselves. You won't find many laughs in the Marquis. He is a man of commitment. And then, once the orgasm is over, we're left standing around in our leathers.

The Marquis was in many ways the pride of his species;
I just hope he flossed after gobbling those feces.

It is almost precious that he is vulnerable to jealousy: "She who, either in seeking base revenge or, what can be even more sordid, out of a gross and vulgar urge to satisfy her carnal appetites, gives herself wantonly to a footman—"  But let us draw a veil over the rest of this discourse.

Quite apart from torture, he—more than Freud, before Freud—made sex the content of every gesture. Like Freud he advised resisting the superego (though he wants virtue to exist, or we'll miss the pleasure of violating it), and Miller and Lawrence regarded him as the real liberator. He sponsored the passionate commitment to the carnal that we have in Genet, Duras and Robbe-Grillet. In what other country are there erotic writers of such stature?

A journalist at a press conference accused President Mitterand of having, not only a mistress, but a daughter by her. "Et puis?" he shrugged. "So?" End of story; not even a follow-up. In America he'd have had to go on TV and say he was abused as a child, not that it would halt the impeachment.

One pictures Strauss-Kahn leaping nude from single bed to single bed and throwing himself on a serving wench. (Did he, however, force his shah into an unwelcoming oral cavity? The portcullis comes down and then where are you?) It’s all the Marquis, my darlings.

“Orgasm and sarcasm,” as Woody Allen sums up the French, and they're related: if the former is your reality, how much patience do you have with anything beyond the enticements of coiffure and couture?

The French critic Roland Barthes said that “teasing is a sadistic passion,” and this, comic writer that I am, draws me to him (de Sade, not Barthes). I’ve been thrown out of bars for teasing. Kicked out of bed. Made to stand in corners. Can’t resist. 

I used to be a semiologist
But now I’m not Saussure.

It can be embarrassing for the Anglo-trained male to realize that French women, I don't hesitate to generalize, expect you to enjoy hurting them. They don't enjoy it themselves, necessarily, but they expect you to. Gosh. They really are different people, and they regard us, with some justice, as children.

The Marquis could never have been an American. Manson's efforts achieved for him only a kind of psychiatric sainthood. The psychopath is a stock American figure, at least from Ahab on, and few Hollywood movies are without one. But de Sade was in the Bastille so his family could guard its reputation, and in the Charenton asylum so the Revolution could distance itself from his writings. He wasn’t a psycho.

I often think that Shakespeare lies behind the Anglo-Saxon success, just as Homer lay behind the Graeco-Roman one. Alexander slept with the Iliad beside his bed; he wanted to be Achilles; Caesar wanted to be Alexander. [Hamlet declined to be Achilles; there are no heroes in Shakespeare unless they're more or less assholes. De Sade, be it noted, delights in violating every law of nobility he can think of.] The Church, though it governed Europe for a thousand years, thrust its rule into heretical times bolstered by Dante. France has the Marquis. 
One overhears, in a Paris café (this actually happened), two waiters discussing whether an acquaintance is Cartesian or Pascallian: does he favor doubt or faith? All French, the French feel, are either one or the other, and we might rush to conclude that here are their real antecedents. 

Let an enormous fartre
And sighed, "Descartes be damned.
I stink, therefore I am."

But regard the waiter as he separates himself from his confrere to “serve” you, the subtle brusqueness with which he lets you know you are intruding on his time, the culpable helplessness with which you submit while he removes, with balletic crispness, whatever is on your table, and asks you with a “Oui, m’sieur?” what you think you might want.

Do not offer him your French to sneer at. Only raise your eyes to meet his, gleaming down at you with casual malice, and you will find yourself face to face, there can be no doubt, with the Marquis.

Greece versus the Puritans

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”—H. L. Mencken
A fault line runs across Western culture. On one side the Puritan work ethic rules the economy; on the other it's something else. In America the line is the Rio Grande; the exception is French Canada.  In Europe the line is roughly defined by the Alps; the exception is Ireland. 

France, by this reckoning, is at the center of the world, where it belongs. England is across a narrow channel from a Mediterranean country.

So we might say that Catholicism, Roman or Orthodox, is that "something else," though it seems to me that religions arise out of peoples, not the other way around
—Nordic barbarians on the one hand, ancient civilizations on the other. South of the Alps people have been civilized—settled, living together, absorbing invaders—for four thousand years (the old polytheism peeks out from Catholicism), while our own ancestors were still roaming the Siberian steppes.

Shakespeare was a civilized man, yes, but his London was barbaric. The British as a people didn’t get there until Victoria, when Puritanism finally took hold. Civilization is middle-class; the aristocrat, Nietzsche tells us, is a barbarian. It’s fair to say that the British have been civilized for only a hundred and fifty years. Not long before that my people painted their faces before going into battle.
(See My Racial Profile.)

We mustn’t confuse Puritanism with prudery. Jean-Luc Godard, William Burroughs, Paul Schrader and David Lynch are Puritans, but their work can be pornographic. Vladimir Nabokov on the other hand was prudish, but in no way puritanical.

The Puritan is a dualist: soul/body, good/evil. The world, for a Puritan, is a temptation to be got through. The Catholic is a monist who believes in the earthly paradise. A few adjustments will restore it. When the Pope disembarks from a plane he gets down on his belly and kisses the ground. You won’t find the Archbishop of Canterbury doing

Puritanism forbids images. An image is false. Truth is elsewhere. The sources of Puritanism in our culture are Moses and Plato. The second commandment forbids images. Plato banished image-makers from his Republic.

According to Freud’s theory Moses was a defeated Egyptian prince who led the Hebrew slaves away from image-saturated Egypt to establish a monotheism; but when he came down the mountain he found them backsliding, adoring an image, the bull calf—which by the way had also been worshipped in Minoan Crete, as it is today in India and Spain. (The bullfight, says Garcia Lorca, contra Hemingway, is “an authentic religious drama, where in the same manner as in the Mass, a God is adored and sacrificed.”)

To forbid images is to impose abstraction. All three puritan traditions, Judaism, Islam and Protestantism, emphasize reading and abstract thinking. The Muslims invented the zero, a huge feat of abstraction, and algebra, and gave us our numbers.

But the early Church, with illiterate peasants and slaves to reach, had to interpret the second commandment as not to worship “false gods.” Walk into a Catholic or an Orthodox church and there are images on the walls, in the windows, on the ceiling, on the floor. The first thing Puritans do is smash the statues and break the stained glass.

Without the Catholic tradition we wouldn’t have Giotto, Botticelli, Giorgione. There was no Jewish oil painter of note until Chagall. In America, where abstraction is the rule, painting has been reduced to the bathroom tile of Jackson Pollock.

Nor does physics permit images. The imagination is bound by Euclid’s laws: the shortest distance between two points, the three angles of a triangle. Newton built his universe in Euclid’s space. But when our telescopes became strong enough, and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, we saw that they did not obey those laws.

Imagine three equidistant objects: easy. Imagine four: a pyramid on a triangular base. Imagine five: can’t be done. And yet it is so. Five hundred, five thousand galaxies where they shouldn’t be: we cannot construct a model of our universe. We cannot imagine it.

The image induces orgasm. You imagine her even when you’re having her. You imagine her even when you’re
not having her. Hence the veil.

Ten years ago in Afghanistan, despite the world’s outrage, the Taliban dynamited giant Buddhas carved in the living rock; they were images and they had to go. Muslims on the other hand were outraged by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet
—not so much that they mocked him as that he should have been portrayed in an image at all.

Jean-Luc Godard attacks images; it has been said that film is not his medium. William Burroughs did the same, and refused to be labeled an “entertainer,” though that is scarcely true. Still, these Puritans clear a space for the spirit. If there can be no adequate image of God, or of reality, then there can be none of you, which is comforting.

“I found America the friendliest, most forgiving, and most generous nation I had ever visited. We South Americans tend to think of things in terms of convenience, whereas people in the United States approach things ethically. This—amateur Protestant that I am—I admired above all. It even helped me overlook skyscrapers, paper bags, television, plastics, and the unholy jungle of gadgets.”—Jorge Luis Borges

The Puritan is a moralist; the Catholic a mystic. Consider opera, that Catholic art, that rite that transubstantiates passion into music. What would Protestant opera sound like? It would sound like Wagner
—moralistic, amelodic, German. (See Germans.)

The Puritan believes in “character” in the sense, not of what distinguishes you from others, but of moral strength. You stand alone. Monotheism breeds the mono-self. In how many Catholic works (by “Catholic” I do not mean “Christian”) of Rabelais, Joyce, Picasso, does one self melt into another.

And so, in the Hollywood movie, we have the all-important “character arc",  in which the lead Learns Something. Are
you learning anything? You’re gathering skills, I know that, but how’s the penetration of mystery going?

An Irishman kills someone, and runs north. Burdened by his guilt he seeks out a clergyman and tells him. “You’ve done the right thing coming to me,” says the minister; “now you must give yourself up to the authorities.” “I’d rather not,” says the Irishman. “But you know that it’s my duty to tell them.” He runs. The police are behind him. He goes south and escapes. Still heavy with guilt he enters a church; the confessional light is on; he goes in and kneels in the dark. “Father, I’ve committed murder.” “How many times, my son?”

The Protestant public is outraged that the Church is not punishing more severely the pedophile priests. Character. “So that’s the kind of man you are!” But the Church believes in the forgiveness of sins, right here in the earthly paradise.

Let us not speak of Catholic and Protestant; let us speak of Nordic and Mediterranean. For the vulgarity north of the Alps is just as grotesque as it is in America.

Consider punching. Angry Mediterraneans shout at each other in the street in a manner that shocks Nordics, in that it never erupts into fighting. We barbarians love to punch.

Consider drunks. I live in Greece and so far I’ve met two drunks. Walk down the street in New York, Toronto or London and look around: we’re all drunks. In an Athens grocery store you can buy plain alcohol for disinfecting cuts and cleaning instruments; in those other cities you can get it in a drug store, but it has an obnoxious smell, so we won’t drink it.

Consider farting which, along with belching, is a mode of communication in the Anglo-Saxon world. In Mediterranean countries it’s simply not done.

Oddly, when you think of the disdain of which America is often the target (“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between,” said Oscar Wilde), civilization took root on the seaboard before it did in northern Europe, planted there by Puritan middle class intellectuals. The United States is unique in that it is a country springing from intellectual principles.

Norman Mailer said Puritanism was the muscular contraction that brought us to the moon. But it exacts its price in the impulse to legislate morality—the Mann Act, Prohibition, abortion laws, the world’s biggest prison population (proportionately and numerically); in the missionary zeal with which it brings democracy to people who have no use for it; and in its conviction, right down to the bone marrow, that the movement of money is the action of God in the world. Bankers in Protestant countries are priests, their calling invested with high authority, and holy secrecy.


That's the kind of morality a cold climate can produce. The New Age library includes a host of books that will help us adjust our attitudes and become more deserving. (Character again: it depends What Kind Of Person You Are.) And today’s Republicans will stop at nothing to reduce the national deficit and regain divine favor. (See Lorca's remarks on Wall Street.)

Do you see this going away? I don't. American fundamentalists are a political force strong enough to have kept their President in office for eight years and, astonishingly, to have fought Darwinian evolution for a century. No one understands America’s difficulty with this, and it appears to exercise the best of the journalistic minds there. There's no contradiction between creationism and Darwin’s Theory; the Church accepted it a century ago, and the impermeability on this issue is disturbing in such a powerful country. (See
The Accidental Monkey.) 

Two fundamentalisms now confront each other, Islamic and American, degenerations, both, of once higher cultures. The incidence of suicide bombings on the one hand, and the gunning down of numbers of people at a time on the other, cannot but seem connected.

It was the Puritan poet John Milton who towered over English Romanticism, which was really a kind of secular Presbyterianism, and each of the poets (except the Shakespearean Keats), even Worsdworth in his quiet way, took Milton’s Satan as his psychological model, though Coleridge preferred wailing for him.

Thus was born the Byronic hero, the Puritan rebel our popular imagination inherits. Marlon Brando was its fiercest avatar, but the figure remains
—that lonely Puritan rebel is still our dominant model.

Here in Greece, as the world now knows, there is a splendid insouciance about money. At the supermarket, even at such formal places as the bank and the post office, if you don’t have the right change, “Pay me next time.” Which means forget it. There is such an elegance about that, but it makes us positively stutter to confront it.

The characters in my books, like me, hang out south of the Alps, not only because they're paradisiacs but because here they're a little beyond Big Brother's reach.

Ah, but the barbarians are again at the gates.


1) What T.S. Eliot calls the “dissociation of sensibility” set in with the Puritan revolution—a schizophrenic scissoring of the mind from the sense of self on the one hand, and from the world, including the body, on the other. The corresponding Catholic psychosis is manic-depression. Fellini cuts on laughter and tears, and
resolves when Guido’s spirits simply lift.

2) "The romantic temper,” says Stephen Dedalus, “is an insecure, unsatisfied, impatient temper which sees no fit abode here for its ideals." Our own taste for parallel worlds, New Age projections and internet avatars is a case in point: life is elsewhere.

3) Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

—W. H. Auden, “Lullaby”

4) Comedy is the Catholic form, as in Dante; tragedy is the other thing. Robert Graves’s Protestant mother and Catholic father fell in love with a house in Wales: “Oh,” she said, “I could die here.” “Let’s live here,” he said.

5) See also Catholic Converts.

Hemingway for Wimps

I’m thinking of writing a book with that title, about how to look death in the face and then run like hell.

Hemingway was the most important writer of the twentieth century—not the best, but the most important.  Too schoolboy-magazine, really, but of world-class stature.

Well, what does “not the best” mean?  The novels haven’t held up.  I love The Sun Also Rises, but it’s the only one that works these days, at least for me.

But the stories are up there with the greatest: Scheherazade, Boccaccio, Chekhov, Kafka, Hemingway.  “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—is there a wilder, more gripping story?  Gable and Peck both starred in film versions.

But that’s not the point.  The importance of Hemingway was that he defined the American man, really for the first time.  Tom and Huck defined boyhood, not manhood.  Arthur Dimmesdale, Natty Bumpo, these are versions of the British gentleman, meaning the British aristocrat, like Tarzan
the only model American men had, and the world had of American men.

Look at the heroes of the movies of the twenties.  The most popular was Douglas Fairbanks, an American version of the British gentleman.  Barrymore, Adolpf Menjou—ersatz Brits.  Ronald Coleman—a Brit.

But in the thirties, when everybody’s read the novels, or heard of them, we have the emergence of Hemingway Man: Gable, Bogart, Cooper.  Tough guys.  "If you want to call me that, smile."

The British aristocrat, all old-world aristocrats, trace their lineage back to myth, to heroes and gods who slew monsters.  Hemingway slew his own monsters—bulls, lions, charging buffalo, giant fish—he traveled the world seeking them out.  It was very strongly felt by the young men who fought in Korea and Vietnam that you couldn’t be a man unless you had stood up under a shelling—“that chastening,” as he called it.

It is no exaggeration to say that what we call “the sixties,” the movement and broad social feeling roughly between 1966 and 1975, was a reaction against Hemingway, the minting of post-Hemingway man.  (Nor is it any exaggeration to say that the feminist movement that gathered such strength then was a reaction against the courtly love tradition, but that’s another story.)

There had always been guys like Teddy Roosevelt, “big-stick” guys, macho guys.  Indeed, Graham Greene says that machismo is an inheritance from the Romans, and exists only in places that had been part of the Empire, and their colonies. 

But Papa wore macho with a glamour that seduced the world, and gave America, and American men—and their women—a specialness, an identity, a global profile.

Fitzgerald, who wrote the finest English prose since Shakespeare, and was a more generous man than Hemingway, who despised him, was shouldered out by Hemingway Man, and knew it, and resented it, and forgave it.  Fitzgerald was the opposite of a tough guy, and therefore in competition with the British gentleman.  He wrote very little that wasn’t designed to show that American class had more class than British class. 

But by the thirties, nobody cared.  Indeed, who cares now?  Name a recent American president, even the sitting one, who isn’t cut from Hemingway’s cloth.

Ironically—for we must have irony, I can’t live without it—he finished life as a lesbian.

He became fascinated by lesbianism, put it in his novels and stories, and asked of his women that they treat him as one of them in bed.  Well, it takes balls.

One of my English professors told us that the Hemingway mystique was false if it came down to blowing your own head off, but that’s unfair.  Papa had been concussed and internally damaged in two back-to-back small-plane crashes in the jungle, and must have been in enormous pain.  With pain like that you can’t tell whether it’s physical or spiritual. Drugs, booze, shock treatments, going blind, I mean come on.

You’ve got to get out from under your heroes, and I think I have moved on from Hemingway.  My characters are as wimpy as I am.  But his presence is still there.  Norman Mailer carried it for us until a few years ago.  I leave you with this:

Norman Mailer and Robert Cohn
Went walking out at sunset by the sea.
Norman said to Robert, "I know you're only here on loan
But the same guy who made you made me.
He made John O'Hara and he made James Jones
And Camus and Antonio-nee.
He made more writers than Brando made actors
But the last and best he made was me,
The last and best he made was me."
They walked on in silence and the waves washed in
And Norman kicked along absently,
Put his hands in his pockets and thought about things
And looked about as glum as he could be.
He said, "Brando won't speak to me,
Marilyn wouldn't sleep with me, 

I'm short and ugly and my thing's too small to see,
And what I want to know, what I called you here to ask you is,
Do you think he would have liked me?"
Cohn looked at him sharply and Mailer brought his guard up, said
"Well you punched him out, you should know!"
"Norman," whispered Robert, "you're confusing fact and  fiction.
It was Jake with whom I came to blows."
"Yeah but Papa let you beat him, he could feel you in your fists!
Do you really mean to stand there and say
That you didn't feel the victory engorge you like grace?
You fought the bull, boy! And you lived another day!"
But Cohn just whispered, "Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,
                          Papa don't care,"
And faded in the gloom and then was gone.
And Norman hung his head and trudged back to his room
And sat there staring at the gun.

For more such idle verse see Literary Musings.

The Accidental Monkey

"That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false"—Paul Valéry 
Darwin was a Romantic. 

The Romantic is impatient with mystery. He must identify himself, and that means to identify with something, or someone—to be able to say, “That’s me”—which requires indulging in metaphysics, as who can help doing?

The usual Romantic choice is Nature. De Sade identified with a Nature that was bloody, murderous and, well, sadistic (see The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France); Byron, with the storm; Shelley, with the west wind“Be thou me, impetuous one!” (perhaps he's punning; péter is French for fart); Marx, with history, which he thought behaved rationally; Darwin, with the orangutan; and Freud with Darwin: the id is the ape within.

For the Romantics, and for much of the nineteenth century, time was an absolute. The ancient Greek absolute was space, three-dimensional Euclidian space. The Greeks knew the diameter of the globe, and one idea moving behind appearances gives the parallax of rational thought.

This same enthusiasm was unearthed in the Renaissance. Three-dimensional painting became an optical science, Baroque perspective dominated everything from Versailles to the ruler-drawn borders of America, and Newton built his universe in Euclid’s space. 

The inward-looking Romantics were in love with one aspect of this space, infinite time. An object is inert in that it doesn’t move unless acted upon, and in motion continues forever unless it meets another force. That line describes infinite time. Space, said Kant, is our outer sense, time our inner sense. Likewise for Godard the shot is a glance, montage a heartbeat. 

In all of literature, said Northrop Frye, there are only two books that go from the beginning to the end, the bible and The Communist Manifesto. Darwin stopped in the present, but his time-line was infinite.

This absolute collapsed, however, in the 1870s and 80s, when our telescopes became strong enough, and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, and we saw that their placement doesn't fit three-dimensional space. Of this arrangement we cannot construct a model—cannot imagine it. Euclid’s laws, it turns out, are the laws of the mind, and we can’t think outside them. (See on this Greece versus the Puritans.) 

We call intergalactic space “curved” as a metaphor derived from Mercator’s projection: if Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the right distance apart, Nairobi and Mombasa can’t be, and vice versa. (There’s more on this in What We Know.) But if space is skew, so is the now perhaps finite time-line. 

And the nineteenth-century view of things has survived. Is it therefore the fittest? That esteemed entomologist Vladimir Nabokov said, Perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest.

Evolution is our myth, our default belief about ourselves. Ask any jerk walking down the street and he'll tell you the score. Have a banana. The “scientists” who publish daily base their speculations on it, as do the literary Naturalists, from Flaubert and Zola to Norman Mailer. Poor disappointed Strindberg wondered if men and women were not descended from different monkeys.

It's a version of the medieval Great Chain of Being, from God and the angels down to minerals, laid on its side and extended in time. Stanley Kubrick, that stern satirist, was having none of it. In a gesture of victory an ape throws his bone-club, the first tool, into the air and, leaping the longest gap ever in a piece of montage, it becomes a space module. No explanation needed—our myth, and therefore invisible. But if being the fittest were just a matter of incremental circuitry the computer HAL (read IBM) would win. (See also Some Thoughts on Stanley Kubrick.) 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in many ways an exemplary thinker, said, “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” But it isn’t a “theory.” Scientific method requires of a theory that it be testable, “verifiable,” as Karl Popper put it. Nothing in the Theory can be tested. 

“Science,” said Paul Valéry, “means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. The rest is literature.” And there are other ways to read the fossil record. "Facts"? Turn a fact a little this way and a little that and it will show you a different face. The proper concern of science, as Edgar Poe said, is not with facts but with laws.

Why do I quote artists rather than scientists? Because they're better. Poe, with his take on Newton, and his understanding that physics is metaphysics, anticipated much that a later century found revolutionary. "Space and Duration are one," he said. Whereas scientists, so numerous, so earnest, are as guilty as the rest of us of scientism, the confidence that science knows it all, can know it all, will know it all.

Most of them are kids publishing or perishing, and have no time to think things all the way through—nor would they dare commit heresy. Sponsor spank. And so the Theory assumes the rigidity of religious dogma. Doubt "science" and you can go to the stake. Just look at the comments on this essay.

Must we be saddled with the effort to imagine one thing turning into another, and to explain the existence of “stuff,” that from which we “evolved”? Or was it always there? Always will be? Are we flirting with a model of God? Are we creationists?

Darwin was a creationist. And the pope is a Darwinist, no problem there. The Scopes monkey trial baffled literate onlookers. Only fundamentalists could insist that the world was created five thousand years ago like it says in the bible. In the movie, Spencer Tracy (marvelous man) shouts “I don’t give a damn about right and wrong!” “What do you give a damn about?” “TRUTH!” 

Well, truth is hard to come by, and overrated. We know how things behave, but what they are is a closed door.

Is our local Euclidian time-line long enough to accommodate the Theory? Godard, to come back to him, says no, it’s too short to get all the way from the amino-acid soup to us. “Our ignorance of our nature,” he says, “is total.”

And Valéry, to come back to him (he had what Nabokov calls “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist”), says:

Humanity is very young and its memory short. Hence it is quite legitimate to surmise that the known physical laws are no more than hasty conclusions drawn from too brief observation and that the human race as we know it (Homo sapiens) has so far existed only between two manifestations of prodigious, discontinuous “laws,” between two gaps in the order of the universe. But a man who watches a church clock from five past to fifty-five past twelve cannot know that it strikes the hour; cannot even guess this. It is not impossible that certain inexplicable phenomena, such as the appearance of life on our planet, are the effects of intermittent laws, laws whose successive manifestations we have not yet had time enough to observe.

Of course that opens things up to uncomfortable speculation. (See Some Notes on God.)

Perhaps I’ve been living too long in Greece. These Mediterraneans are classicists, rock people, as Dalí says, and he evokes Mantegna to prove it. Romantics are Nordics, forest-and-fog people, music-and-flowers people, gazing inward at evanescent visions. “My moustache is the contrary of Nietzsche’s, which is depressive, with plenty of music. Mine is a pair of erect scissors, the rocks of this country.” 
And indeed, Romantic depth can usually be traced to indigestion.
The accidental monkey
‘S a metaphysics junkie
With bothersome abysses on his mind;

Preoccupied with dying,
Interminably trying
To turn around and glimpse his own behind.

His finger in his yin-yang
He contemplates the Big Bang,
The earliest ancestor he can find,

Unless it’s all that room
The Bang had to go boom—
Or does it create space as it unwinds,

A spreading dance of gravity
In a potential cavity
Like that in which his finger is entwined?

Reality extrudes him.
Its structure still eludes him,
His probing finger warmer but confined.

A cosmos so anonymous,
How can it but be ominous
That such vast masonry was left unsigned?

Enigma born of distances
And exquisite resistances—
Too seamless not to seem that way designed.

Theisms, whether mono
Or other sorts of guano,
Have left his spirit largely unaligned.

Perusing Darwin’s Theory
He feels a little leery
Of sepia-toned free-market states of mind.

Amino acid soup-erman
Whose wake-up call so overran
’S the one myth all the apes have not maligned;

But too unscientific
To offer much specific,
As willing as he is to be resigned.

The spiral strands of rubble
He surveys through the Hubble
May possibly bear others of his kind.

Would that be any better,
To get an email letter
From some strange breed of orphans just as blind?

Abject on a conveyor,
Hunched over as for prayer
He’s hummed through life bowed down by double bind.

The horizontal motion
Admits no meta-notion,
His view cut off both forward and behind.

A bas with this banality!
He opts for verticality—
His heart leaps up and stands in him star-high!

A fallen god no longer,
Already he feels stronger,
Astral banana peeling off the rind!

Abyss-wise up is down though
And starry heaven’s clown so
Has raised his head it’s lodged in his behind.

Divine but rather stupid,
Of Morpheus and Cupid,
And to this grosser matter self-consigned,

The accidental monkey
At least is his own flunky,
And buoyed by this he hop-turns to the grind.