Something to Be Sad About; Apologies to Kurt

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:20

    LEMAÎTRE You're Depressed? My mother, who died last year in her 90s, suffered from melancholia throughout her life. Perhaps her melancholy was brought on by my father's constant womanizing?he had too strong a sense of duty to ever leave her or to stop loving her, and too much sense of entitlement to ever give up having mistresses?but somehow I doubt it. She grieved terribly after his death 10 years ago; she had been known before her marriage as the prettiest but saddest society belle in Athens.

    I thought of my poor mama's depression, as it's now called, when I read that the Gores and the Clintons shared a stage at the White House Conference on Mental Health last week. "This is the last great stigma of the 20th century that we need to make sure ends here and now," said Tipper Gore.

    For starters, I never knew that depression was a "stigma." In fact, I always saw it as being almost a romantic plus in a person. Tipper recently revealed that she suffered from depression after her son was hit by a car. She sought medical help, received medication and is now cured. Good for Tipper. For being depressed, that is. Most mothers I know would be terribly depressed if a child of theirs was hit by a car, but I'm not so sure about the medication. It smacks of the excuses provided nowadays for every purpose and every human weakness, such as compulsive gambling or the placing of obscene phone calls, all recognized by the law under the medical term of uncontrollable impulse disorder.

    Alas, I suffer terribly from uncontrollable impulse disorder?a terrific desire to punch Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran and that Dershowitz fellow rather hard on the kisser?but have managed to control myself all these years without medication. (A little bit of vodka always helps.) The Gores and the Clintons were grandstanding as usual. In Thomas Paine's words, "They pity the plumage but forget the dying bird." They're making a huge fuss about people with minor emotional troubles, while raving madmen who can't even clean themselves after going to the bathroom are let loose on the streets. Billions are spent on people who are a little blue, but what of those with real problems? The pharmaceutical companies benefit greatly, needless to say.

    Basically the Clintons and the Gores were out for sound bites. The self-absorbed martyrdom of the 1990s is just their bag. Never before are so many people supposed to feel so much self-pity. Never before are so many people supposed to think they are victims. (So much so that I've started an organization called SUBROSA: Spare Us Boredom, Rely On Self-Abuse). Of course depression should be included in health insurance, but it has to be the real McCoy. Clinical depression, including bipolar disorder and manic depression, is easily faked. (I've been particularly depressed these last few years because Serena Boardman and Kadee Robbins, two young and beautiful blondes, will not give me a tumble, but my insurance refuses to compensate me.) Needless to say, this will open up the proverbial Pandora's box as far as health insurance is concerned. Like posttraumatic stress syndrome (students in some schools, we're told, are showing a 500 percent increase in levels of anxiety-trauma), mental illness will now be diagnosed for every boy who loses the girl, and vice versa.

    Government intruding into the most intimate areas of life is a very bad idea, but par for the course where the Clinton-Gore gang is concerned. (Incidentally, when war broke out in 1940 I was four years old. Throughout the next four years we were bombed almost daily and nightly by the Anglo-Americans, as our country house was near the royal palace of Tatoi, north of Athens, where a German airfield was located. After that I witnessed a bloody civil war and house-to-house fighting. You might think me insensitive, but I have never suffered from nightmares or post-traumatic stress?except when I think of Grace, a local lass at Lawrenceville school where I was dispatched in 1949, who gave it away like a frisbee to the senior football players but totally ignored a lower-school nobody like me.)

    Which brings me to Mr. Mike Wallace, who was also on the dais with the Clinton-Gore gang, and revealed all about his depression while Tipper patted his hand and arm. Poor Mike, what suffering, what anguish, what torture. Wallace told the rapt audience that his depression surfaced during a libel trial. He was eventually hospitalized and has been on medication ever since.

    There is a marvelous English expression when one hears such rubbish: "Pass me the sick bag, Alice." Wallace won his libel case, despite the fact that he had truly libeled Gen. Westmoreland. Yet the poor little 60 Minutes star has been on medication ever since.

    Although I am sure that Wallace will think of me as extremely insensitive, let me note that I have lost all my libel cases in England, all at great cost, and somehow have survived without the slightest depression. One woman sued me for calling her a merry widow. She took a lover immediately after her fourth husband died and left her his fortune. I thought merry widow was an appropriate sobriquet. The case drew enormous interest and publicity and had everything for everyone. Name-dropping galore?Niarchos, Onassis, Agnelli, Henry Ford, who came and gave evidence; drama, when the merry widow "fainted" twice while giving evidence; shock horrors, when Anthony Haden-Guest was revealed to have been servicing a lady in broad daylight in my garden; and, finally, a hell of a lot of laughs when I was warned by Justice Otton?a terrific prick?not to refer to Lord Justices in my weekly Spectator column as bewigged buffoons, nor write that plaintiff's counsel, another terrific prick by the name of Hartley, had tiny testicles.

    I also lost to Sylvester Stallone?who sued in England, where truth is no defense?when I wrote that he had taken at least eight deferments in order to avoid the Vietnam draft, almost as many as William Cohen, the present hero and bomber of Belgrade did. The Aga Khan sued and won when I wrote that he used a souped-up magic carpet to fly around and used an Indian rope trick to seduce women. And then there was the American male writer I mistakenly described as a woman. (This was the funniest of all).

    All sued for libel in England, where libel laws favor the plaintiff and journalists are considered one step above child molesters. Poor old Mike. Imagine what depression he would have gone through had he been poor little Taki. Pass me the Prozac, dude.

    Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST Kurt: An Apology I owe Kurt Andersen an apology. It is always a little painful for a journalist to have to apologize to someone he has written about. It is all the more so in this case, when the offense stems from a mixture of sloth and carelessness on my part. Recently, in a column on summer reading, I made several derogatory references to Mr. Andersen. I lumped his new novel Turn of the Century in with the works of Tom Wolfe and others on the "low" end of the literary spectrum. I implied that the satire in it was rather broad. And I suggested that it might be an embarrassingly common book to take to the East End of Long Island this summer.

    I must guiltily admit that at the time I made these disobliging observations I had not so much as cracked a copy of Turn of the Century. My little snub at the novel had nothing to do with any critical convictions. It was motivated more by my irritation at having heard so much about it, about the author and all the important positions he has held, about all of his fabulous friends who showed up at his book party, etc. etc. My guess that Turn of the Century was not much of a literary masterpiece came from reading between the lines of the many reviews that had appeared. The satirical thrusts the reviewers cited with evident approval seemed rather obvious to me. Their praise for the book often had an undertone of ambivalence.

    After my column appeared, just out of curiosity, I began to ask my friends and people I met at cocktail parties what they thought of Andersen's novel. Now here is what was odd: Although most of those I spoke to felt the novel had many bits that were "brilliantly observed," "funny," "trenchant" and so on, not a one of them had actually been able to finish it. Not one. This can't be, I thought. Surely there must be someone, somewhere, who has made it all the way through Turn of the Century. But my quest to find this reader was futile.

    Well, I decided, if the amateurs did not possess the needed powers of endurance, surely the professionals?the book reviewers?did. Yet when I talked to a few people who had reviewed Turn of the Century for newspapers and magazines, they confessed to me that they had not read the whole thing either! Now, this may seem shocking to those of you who don't review books for a living. It shouldn't be. There is only one ethical principle in the art of book-reviewing: Never pan a book without having read most of it. If you see a review in the paper that begins, "Fans of so-and-so's first novel will find much to admire in this new collection of sharply observed stories," you can be pretty sure that the critic took the review copy straight to the Strand without opening it (books in pristine condition fetch a better resale price). Contrariwise, if a reviewer actually wastes a few days of his life reading the assigned book, he is entitled to get revenge for this irksome experience by mauling it in print.

    In the case of Turn of the Century, at least one reviewer?the one for Time, and an avowed friend of the novelist, no less seemed all but to admit he had not been able to finish reading the wonderful 659-page novel. "Its loose, digressive shape makes Turn of the Century awfully easy to put down," he wrote, taking a pause from praising it.

    It appeared possible to me that Andersen's novel might fall into the same category as A Brief History of Time, or even Principia Mathematica. Perhaps no one at all, save the author himself, had gazed upon its latter parts. So I resolved to do so myself. And what I found went well beyond a beach-reading-friendly lampoon of such ephemeral targets as Alec Baldwin, Rupert Murdoch, AIDS awareness ribbons and the word "lite." What I found was a dense and allusive modernist masterpiece, one that will keep the professors busy for decades to come.

    This is not the glib Kurt Andersen of the "Zeitgeist" column and the media elite. It is the Kurt Andersen who, some years ago, astonished the assembled members of the New York Institute for the Humanities by teasing out variations on the trope of irony thitherto undreamt of by those literary scholars. I cannot say that the latter chapters of Turn of the Century are an example of learning lightly borne; erudition protrudes from every page. One thinks of Fichte and Vico, but one also feels the influence of the Upanishads.

    The boldness of Andersen's modernist experimentation makes this a novel not for a large and vulgar audience, but for the happy few. The author clearly scorns any commercial considerations, deliberately dispensing with all merely connective and transitional passages with his "stream of consciousness" technique. At one point there are 43 consecutive pages without any punctuation at all. Archaic spellings and learned borrowings abound, and many sentences seem to be macaronic mixtures of Greek, Sanskrit and early Provençal. Each chapter symbolizes a bodily organ, a sign of the zodiac and a subatomic particle. In one of them, Andersen seamlessly exemplifies every known rhetorical device, including aporia, synecdoche and?amazingly?aposiopesis.

    Reading the last half of Turn of the Century, one comes to realize that its protagonist, the journalist George Mactier, is, as he edges into the sleazy world of tv infotainment, typologically reenacting the epic of Gilgamesh. But the most impressive tour de force in the novel is when the character based on the hedge-fund manager and tv personality James J. Cramer has an extended dialogue in blank verse with Tiresias, the blind soothsayer of Thebes. I quote from its beginning on page 574:


    and Cramer


    O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots


    of a traveler, wherefore seeking whom


    by what way how purposed art thou come


    this well-nightingaled vicinity?


    J. Cramer: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.


    Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?


    Plying with speed my partnership of legs.


    Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?


    Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.


    Go chase into the house a lucky foot.


    O my son, be, on the one hand, good,


    do not, on the other hand, be bad:


    that is very much the safest plan.


    Shantih shantih shantih jug jug twit twit...

    Clearly we are in the presence of the very highest literature here. Hence my deepest apologies to Kurt Andersen. For keeping the flame of literary modernism burning bright, without regard for personal enrichment or notoriety, let us all bestow a well-deserved benison upon this intrepid?if sometimes waspish!?author.