Something to Be Sad About; Apologies to Kurt

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:19

    LEMAÎTREYou'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-hehad too strong a sense of duty to ever leave her or to stop loving her, andtoo much sense of entitlement to ever give up having mistresses-but somehowI doubt it. She grieved terribly after his death 10 years ago; she had beenknown before her marriage as the prettiest but saddest society belle in Athens. I thoughtof my poor mama's depression, as it's now called, when I read that the Goresand the Clintons shared a stage at the White House Conference on Mental Healthlast week. "This is the last great stigma of the 20th century thatwe 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 sawit as being almost a romantic plus in a person. Tipper recently revealed thatshe suffered from depression after her son was hit by a car. She sought medicalhelp, 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 theirswas hit by a car, but I'm not so sure about the medication. It smacks of theexcuses provided nowadays for every purpose and every human weakness, such ascompulsive gambling or the placing of obscene phone calls, all recognized bythe law under the medical term of uncontrollable impulse disorder.

    Alas, Isuffer terribly from uncontrollable impulse disorder-a terrific desire to punchBill Clinton, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran and that Dershowitz fellow ratherhard on the kisser-but have managed to control myself all these years withoutmedication. (A little bit of vodka always helps.) The Gores and the Clintonswere grandstanding as usual. In Thomas Paine's words, "They pity the plumagebut forget the dying bird." They're making a huge fuss about people withminor emotional troubles, while raving madmen who can't even clean themselvesafter going to the bathroom are let loose on the streets. Billions are spenton people who are a little blue, but what of those with real problems? The pharmaceuticalcompanies benefit greatly, needless to say.

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

    Governmentintruding into the most intimate areas of life is a very bad idea, but par forthe course where the Clinton-Gore gang is concerned. (Incidentally, when warbroke out in 1940 I was four years old. Throughout the next four years we werebombed almost daily and nightly by the Anglo-Americans, as our country housewas near the royal palace of Tatoi, north of Athens, where a German airfieldwas 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 orpost-traumatic stress-except when I think of Grace, a local lass at Lawrencevilleschool where I was dispatched in 1949, who gave it away like a frisbee to thesenior football players but totally ignored a lower-school nobody like me.)

    Which bringsme 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 eventuallyhospitalized and has been on medication ever since.

    There isa marvelous English expression when one hears such rubbish: "Pass me thesick bag, Alice." Wallace won his libel case, despite the fact that hehad truly libeled Gen. Westmoreland. Yet the poor little 60 Minutes starhas been on medication ever since.

    AlthoughI am sure that Wallace will think of me as extremely insensitive, let me notethat I have lost all my libel cases in England, all at great cost, andsomehow have survived without the slightest depression. One woman sued me forcalling her a merry widow. She took a lover immediately after her fourth husbanddied 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 gaveevidence; drama, when the merry widow "fainted" twice while givingevidence; shock horrors, when Anthony Haden-Guest was revealed to have beenservicing a lady in broad daylight in my garden; and, finally, a hell of a lotof laughs when I was warned by Justice Otton-a terrific prick-not to refer toLord Justices in my weekly Spectator column as bewigged buffoons, norwrite that plaintiff's counsel, another terrific prick by the name of Hartley,had tiny testicles.

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

    All suedfor libel in England, where libel laws favor the plaintiff and journalists areconsidered one step above child molesters. Poor old Mike. Imagine what depressionhe 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 KurtAndersen an apology. It is always a little painful for a journalist to haveto apologize to someone he has written about. It is all the more so in thiscase, when the offense stems from a mixture of sloth and carelessness on mypart. 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 Wolfeand others on the "low" end of the literary spectrum. I implied thatthe satire in it was rather broad. And I suggested that it might be an embarrassinglycommon book to take to the East End of Long Island this summer. I must guiltilyadmit that at the time I made these disobliging observations I had not so muchas cracked a copy of Turn of the Century. My little snub at the novelhad nothing to do with any critical convictions. It was motivated more by myirritation at having heard so much about it, about the author and all the importantpositions he has held, about all of his fabulous friends who showed up at hisbook party, etc. etc. My guess that Turn of the Century was not muchof a literary masterpiece came from reading between the lines of the many reviewsthat had appeared. The satirical thrusts the reviewers cited with evident approvalseemed rather obvious to me. Their praise for the book often had an undertoneof ambivalence.

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

    Well, Idecided, if the amateurs did not possess the needed powers of endurance, surelythe professionals-the book reviewers-did. Yet when I talked to a few peoplewho had reviewed Turn of the Century for newspapers and magazines, theyconfessed to me that they had not read the whole thing either! Now, this mayseem shocking to those of you who don't review books for a living. It shouldn'tbe. There is only one ethical principle in the art of book-reviewing: Neverpan a book without having read most of it. If you see a review in the paperthat begins, "Fans of so-and-so's first novel will find much to admirein this new collection of sharply observed stories," you can be prettysure that the critic took the review copy straight to the Strand without openingit (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 caseof 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 hadnot 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 appearedpossible to me that Andersen's novel might fall into the same category as ABrief History of Time, or even Principia Mathematica. Perhaps noone at all, save the author himself, had gazed upon its latter parts. So I resolvedto do so myself. And what I found went well beyond a beach-reading-friendlylampoon of such ephemeral targets as Alec Baldwin, Rupert Murdoch, AIDS awarenessribbons and the word "lite." What I found was a dense and allusivemodernist masterpiece, one that will keep the professors busy for decades tocome.

    This isnot the glib Kurt Andersen of the "Zeitgeist" column and the mediaelite. It is the Kurt Andersen who, some years ago, astonished the assembledmembers of the New York Institute for the Humanities by teasing out variationson the trope of irony thitherto undreamt of by those literary scholars. I cannotsay that the latter chapters of Turn of the Century are an example oflearning lightly borne; erudition protrudes from every page. One thinks of Fichteand Vico, but one also feels the influence of the Upanishads.

    The boldnessof Andersen's modernist experimentation makes this a novel not for a large andvulgar audience, but for the happy few. The author clearly scorns any commercialconsiderations, deliberately dispensing with all merely connective and transitionalpassages with his "stream of consciousness" technique. At one pointthere are 43 consecutive pages without any punctuation at all. Archaic spellingsand learned borrowings abound, and many sentences seem to be macaronic mixturesof Greek, Sanskrit and early Provençal. Each chapter symbolizes a bodilyorgan, a sign of the zodiac and a subatomic particle. In one of them, Andersenseamlessly exemplifies every known rhetorical device, including aporia, synecdocheand-amazingly-aposiopesis.

    Readingthe 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 tourde force in the novel is when the character based on the hedge-fund managerand tv personality James J. Cramer has an extended dialogue in blank verse withTiresias, the blind soothsayer of Thebes. I quote from its beginning on page574:


    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...

    Clearlywe are in the presence of the very highest literature here. Hence my deepestapologies to Kurt Andersen. For keeping the flame of literary modernism burningbright, without regard for personal enrichment or notoriety, let us all bestowa well-deserved benison upon this intrepid-if sometimes waspish!-author.