Category Archives: general interest

morning thoughts

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email from me this morning to my friend Clare Bruyère, an emeritus professor of American literature who lives in Paris. I feel that it is not too personal for me to post it.

 

 

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Thank you very much for your comments, Claire.

I have gotten hardly any feedback or compliments on my family separation posts. …

NYC and Manhattan are depressing — not the same city.

I hate “social distancing” — though I am not in a position to say what must be done, and realize it is necessary, but, I feel that — as a few, very few, commentators have pointed out — people need closeness to people just as they do sunlight and oxygen.

Many commentators are extolling, and advising us upon, the glories of things such as virtual gatherings and parties; interacting remotely; working with colleagues and attending concerts and cultural events from home; and abolishing “old fashioned,” retrograde things such as the handshake.

These moribund social engineers and would be “reformers” have no conception of what makes us human, and what is required for maintaining a feeling of wellbeing.

 

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 14, 2020

flight from the cities

 

 

Please see my new post

 

 

“flight from the cities”

 

on my Sorokin site at

 

 

flight from the cities

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

the true intellectual …

 

 

 

Something brought the following thought to the forefront of my consciousness this morning.

That the true intellectual knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

I would imagine that this is true of people in other fields — say, an actor or athlete whom everyone raves about, who knows better than anyone else what they excel at and what their weaknesses are — what they can and can’t do, so to speak.

Relatives — which is to say, people who know me well — have often accused me, unfairly, of braggadocio in my writings, in these posts.

 

 

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I was thinking this morning about intellectuals and writers I have known personally.

I became a close friend of Charles Pierre, a New York poet and author of five books of poetry, in my early days in New York. There was a meeting of minds, and there were many deep discussions. From Charlie, I learned much about poetry, and how little I knew. I also learned that some people are more well read than me. His reading was prodigious, deep, and wide in scope: poetry, classic and contemporary (I had never head of Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery); classical and modem fiction; and philosophy. There was no way I could ever match his knowledge of poetry. Or of contemporary literature, including the avant-garde and the poets who were reading their works in the bars of Manhattan at Sunday poetry readings. I had dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charlie was reading it when we were first becoming acquainted, assiduously.

He gave me a learned, extemporaneous “lecture” in one of our chats on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. He told me about his admiration for the poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (whom he was reading at the time) and how difficult it was to translate poetry. About what he thought the best translations of Dante (whom I had never read) were. About the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (whom I had never heard of) and Juvenal’s satires. About how much he admired the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran (whom I had also never heard of).

And, then there was my therapist, Ralph Colp Jr. MD. I was a history major. Dr. Colp (doctor, scholar, and writer) was a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic; his mastery and recall of the facts near total. He put me to shame. He caught me in faux pas, such as placing Frederick the Great in the wrong century.

And, yet, Dr. Colp once said to me, “There are great gaps in my knowledge,” by which he meant his knowledge in general (his book learning). He had the humility of a true intellectual.

Guess what. So do I.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 6, 2020

Joe Biden is lying.

 

 

 

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made her allegations in 2018 against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, acknowledged sexual predator Donald J. Trump tried to muddy the issue, throw the bloodhounds off track, and defend Kavanaugh – in his (Trump’s) usual shameless manner of engaging in denial and deceit — by saying: Where is the police report? Why didn’t she report the incident to the police?

Ford was fifteen years old at the time. Kavanaugh was seventeen.

She said (during the 2018 controversy over the allegations) that she didn’t want her parents to know that she had attended a house party with older boys. And, at any rate, what fifteen-year-old would have the presence of mind to think — or to know that things could be handled this way — I have to go report this assault to the police? She left the house in sort of a daze.

 

 

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I am going to relate a long ago experience of mine, in the interests of illustrating something.

I had a similar experience, with a gay man making a pass at me, when I was in my late teens.

It was summer vacation after my freshman year in college. I went to a concert of classical music by the Boston Pops on the Esplanade in Boston. I loved those concerts. I always went by myself.

At some point, no doubt at intermission, a man who was what I considered to be an adult — anyone thirty or older, if not in their mid- to late-twenties — seemed like an elder to me back then — approached me and asked, “Do you come to these concerts often? Do you like music?”

He was dressed casually, but seemed respectable. He said something at some point about being a professor. I was flattered to be asked about my musical interests and concert-going habits. I was impressed to be talking to a scholar. And, I was always receptive to and interested in anyone who cared to converse with me.

 

 

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As I write this, some details come back to me. I believe the concert had just ended, and the crowd was about to disperse.

The “professor” asked me casually if I would care to stop by his apartment in Cambridge for a chat. I found this welcome. I was flattered to be asked, and I associated Cambridge with being the place where intellectuals lived.

At his place, we chatted for about a half hour. The “professor” seemed to be a vibrant conversationalist. I did notice some erotic statuettes on a side table in his living room. I think one was what appeared to be primitive art: an abstract figure of a man and an erect phallus (?). I remember that it was black and was wood or Formica. The figure was of a primitive man.

I wanted to talk to the “professor” about music. He seemed a bit “aggressive” in introducing topics. He made some references, allusions, to sex that I didn’t fully comprehend. He kept making them, intermittently.

I was totally inexperienced sexually at this point in my life. But I had read a couple of erotic novels, had associated and talked with teenagers who had had sexual experience and didn’t like adults to tell them how to behave — smart, rebellious kids. Sex was raised as a topic in some of my church youth group workshops and discussion groups. But I had never had bull sessions, say, with male friends where they recounted sexual exploits in detail.

I felt uneasy with this part of the “professor’s” conversation, but I didn’t want to seem like a prude. So, I laughed uneasily. I tried to convey the impression that I was not uncomfortable with risqué conversation or topics and was used to them being talked about, if not actually experienced in sex.

 

 

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There is something else about me that was relevant at the time, and may have been somewhat similar to Blasey-Ford. I tended to be not only shy, but passive. The opposite of assertive.

The “professor” after a while asked me if I would like a back rub. Girls would give boys, including me, back rubs at our church youth group weekend retreats. That was the closest I had ever come to being physically close to a girl.

Being passive, and not wanting to be oppositional, looking up to the “professor,” thinking that perhaps this was something that was usual or normal — and anyway I was probably too rigid or uptight — I consented.

After a few minutes, I started to feel uncomfortable. I stiffened up. Then the “professor” started to reach under my belt and tried to slide his hands down my pants. At that point, I bolted. I made some excuse (I think I said my parents would be worried about me getting home late) and beat a hasty exit from the “professor’s” apartment.

What would Holden Caulfield have done?

 

 
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I drove home in our family’s second car (a 1953 Chevy). I felt very anxious, but relieved to have gotten away from the “professor.” I couldn’t get a handle on what had happened.

I was known for honesty and had always felt that honesty was the best policy; somehow, things always came out better that way. I didn’t quite know what to do, but, unlike Blasey-Ford, I told my mother (not going into detail) what had happened, immediately upon arriving home. It seems that I did this to relieve stress. Sort of like telling your shrink something. I thought to myself, I did nothing wrong. What do I have to hide? And, if I had done something immoral, would not my parents see that in that case I would not have told then about it?

I do not recall my mother’s response. I think she said little, because she did not know how to handle this confidence by me or what to say.

 

 

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I tried to put the matter out of mind, as one might a bad dream. I didn’t know what to make of it. The next day, I felt better.

But then my mother brought the matter up again. I don’t recall her exact words. But it was something like: Your father and I discussed your experience after the concert. We are sorry you experienced it. (My parents always feigned being advanced when it came to any sex issues — they had a copy of the Kinsey Report on the bookshelf in the living room — but, actually, I know this intuitively, the thought of having to deal with sexual issues or sexual behavior by their children terrified them.) Then, my mother said, if what you said was the truth, then you did nothing wrong.

Somehow, I could tell — intuited — that this experience, mine, had made my parents very anxious. More even than me.

I loved my mother and respected her. But she should NOT have said that. It made me feel bad about myself — or at least how my parents felt about me. They weren’t prepared to necessarily believe me. They were wondering if I had perhaps misbehaved with the “professor,” or had perhaps somehow been party to the event occurring. I never forgot this mixed message: My account of being the victim of a would be sexual predator was heard but was not deemed necessarily credible.

 

 

Roger W. Smith

   May 2020

James Joyce on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”

 

 

The black plague devastated the City of London during the earlier years of the reign of Charles II. The toll of victims cannot be established with any certainty, but it probably exceeded a hundred and fifty thousand. Of this horrible slaughter Defoe [in his A Journal of the Plague Year] provides an account which is all the more terrifying for its sobriety and gloominess. The doors of the infected households were marked with a red cross over which was written: Lord, have mercy on us! Grass was growing in the streets. A dismal, putrid silence overhung the devastated city like a pall. Funeral wagons passed through the streets by night, driven by veiled carters who kept their mouths covered with disinfected cloths. A crier walked before them ringing a bell intermittently and calling out into the night, Bring out your dead! Behind the church in Aldgate an enormous pit was dug. Here the drivers unloaded their carts and threw merciful lime over the blackened corpses. The desperate and the criminal revelled day and night in the taverns. The mortally ill ran to throw themselves in with the dead. Pregnant women cried for help. Large smoky fires were forever burning on the street corners and in the squares. Religious insanity reached its peak. A madman with a brazier of burning coals on his head used to walk stark naked through the streets shouting that he was a prophet and repeating by way of an antiphony: 0 the great and dreadful God!

 

 

— James Joyce, “Daniel Defoe” (lecture delivered at the Univerità Populare, Trieste, 1912)

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2020

new post: “Sorokin on human emotions in a time of plague”

 

Please see my new post on my Sorokin site (dedicated to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin:

 

“Sorokin on human emotions in a time of plague”

 

 

Sorokin on human emotions in a time of plague

 

 
— Roger W. Smith

   April 2020

the salt of the earth

 

 

 

And make certain not to practice your righteousness before men, in order to be watched by them. …

 

Matthew 6:1

 

The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart

 

 

In an email to readers yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote:

 

Hospitals have been very reluctant to allow journalists in to report, in part because of genuine concerns about infection risk and HIPAA privacy rules. But this pandemic is a story that is best covered not from White House press briefings but from the front lines in the hospitals. I asked many hospitals for permission, and two did agree to let me and a video journalist inside. My column today … shares what we found. [italics added]

The visit left me deeply impressed by the doctors, nurses, technicians, respiratory therapists and cleaners who risk their lives by working each day in the “hot zone” where contagion spreads. Many confided their fears of getting sick and dying, or their worries about getting loved ones sick, and some spoke of their nightmares and panic attacks. Yet they soldier on with tremendous compassion. …

 

 

I recommend Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed:

 

Life and Death in the ‘Hot Zone’

“If people saw this, they would stay home.” What the war against the coronavirus looks like inside two Bronx hospitals.

By Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times

April 11, 2020

 

 

 

It’s an incredibly courageous — and in itself incredible — and also harrowing piece of reporting.

The true heroes of this crisis, this pandemic, are indeed the doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers; and the EMS workers, medics, and ambulance drivers.

 

 
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If I may add one further observation that I have been making in the past two weeks. As usual, it seems that, while some of the rich are fleeing New York City, it is ordinary people often who are the salt of the earth — the humble people who can’t leave. I have observed this several times.

About a week ago, I was on a bus in Queens that was more crowded than one would expect. Everyone seems uptight now about sitting or getting too close, and yet a woman was struggling to get on with an overloaded shopping cart — she must have been Jewish and shopping for Passover, judging by some of the items in her cart. The woman was from Manhattan, and getting back to Manhattan from Queens involved taking three or four buses. It was apparent that she wasn’t going to take the subway. The passengers on the bus, as I am finding with the transit riding public in the past couple of weeks, appeared to be mostly minority and not well heeled. When he observed the woman struggling, a black guy on the street who was not boarding the bus interrupted his walk to wherever he was headed to help her get the cart on. Then, a woman on the bus who appeared to be Hispanic spent ten minutes or so going over possible bus routes with the woman and inquiring from other passengers, all of whom pitched in with advice, the best route for the woman to take.

The bus emptied out, and the woman reached a point near the bridge where she had to get off and transfer for another bus to Manhattan. Passengers, myself included, made it a point to help her get her cart off, find the right place to catch the next bus, and help her get across Queens Boulevard with her cart to the right place.

 

 
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This past week, I was on a bus headed uptown on Second Avenue. A woman was getting off in Midtown. She looked like she could afford to live there. She had a couple of shopping bags. There was another woman wearing a mask seated across from me near the exit door. The bus goes all the way to East Harlem; this woman, from her dress, did not look rich. I felt she could have been a day care worker or some such type of work.

“Lady,” she said to the woman getting off, “you left your pocket book on the seat.” The woman was very thankful. The bus driver held up the bus so she could go back and get it.

I got off the bus a couple of stops later. “God bless you,” I said to the “day care worker.” “You did a good deed. You saved the woman’s day.” I was thinking how I would feel if I got home and realized my wallet, money, and credit cards were all gone.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 12, 2020