The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

June 2 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

THE TROUBLE WITH BEER
First, there was the pre-election revelation about President Bush's conviction for drunken driving in 1976. (The Australian tennis player John Newcombe was traveling with Bush at the time of his arrest.) Then there was news that Vice President Cheney's eldest daughter worked for what Andrew Sullivan described as the "redneck" brewing company, Coors (Mary Cheney is a now graduate student at a Colorado university). And now, as surely as one ale follows another, there are the reports and commentary about Jenna Bush's second citation for breaking Texas's drinking statutes—laws that where revised and stiffened by her father while he served as governor of the Lone Star State. A day after the story had gone cosmic, Howard Kurtz asked whether the media's reaction to the Jenna arrest wasn't a bit overdramatic, though contrived to avoid answering the question he posed his readers. Well, yes of course it was overreaction—what isn't these days—and with good reason. As Katie Roiphe points out in the Guardian, the laws governing drinking for young adults are draconian. "The fact that a girl with a beer in her hand would even be called an 'incident' is bizarre." Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times, contrasts America's prohibition tendencies with Britain's laissez faire attitudes toward drinking—where people revel in their enjoyment of wine and beer yet where few would also admit that alcoholism is a national issue. Meanwhile, the Telegraph has news that may cheer up Jenna Bush and her father. Euan Blair, the 17-year-old son of the British prime minister, who was found unconscious by police after a night on London's tiles last July, was yesterday made deputy head boy at his school.

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GOING GLOBAL Who can forget the scene in Jour de Fête, Jacques Tati's movie that's partly about France's modernization, when a short film about the style of the U.S. Postal Service is shown in a small French village? The local postman, played by Tati, inspired by the amazing efficiency and speed of the American way with mail, decides that such innovation can be brought to his remote corner of France by tearing around the village on a bicycle like a lunatic. The result is a fiasco, and the scene remains amusing because such exercises in Americanization continue in Europe. Take, for example, Britain's postal service—the Royal Mail—which recently decided to re-christen itself " Consignia"—as if to consign a letter or package is somehow better than to mail or post, and somehow so very American. Or the American election practices adopted by Britain's political parties. Perhaps it's no surprise that many Europeans are reflexively anti-American, not just because of America's economic and military power and because globalization is synonymous with Americanization, but because European companies and political parties adopt cosmetic changes—labeled "American"—in the hopes that these slights of hand will miraculously alter how the public will perceive them. The problem is that few people believe such alterations change anything. In Italy an unlikely proponent of further and more thorough globalization is the Marxist Antonio Negri. As Negri tells the New Statesman, capitalism has brought about an "end of the distinction between production and life—life and work have become the same thing. But it is not life that has been reduced to work, like in a totalitarian society. Instead it is work that has identified itself with life."

ONLY IN NEW YORK
In honor of Memorial Day and the beginning of summer, the columnist Jack Newfield chose 50 great things about New York as his theme. His list begins like this: "1. The paddock area of Belmont Park. 2. Joe Torre. 3. The subway … 4. The atmosphere inside Madison Square Garden when Tito Trinidad fights …  5. Canal Street, where you can buy a Yankee hat in Japanese and enjoy the amazing diversity and energy. 6. Little St. Patrick's Church on Mulberry Street … 7. The School of Visual Arts. 8. The 30-foot Irish Freedom Mural at 230 E. 124th St. in Spanish Harlem … 9. The Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B and 10th Street, which has the best jukebox around … 10. The temperature-and-time box on NY1." Other aficionados of NY1 might have said "Weather-on-the-Ones," the forecast one can catch every 10 minutes at one, 11, 21, 31, 41, and 51 minutes past the hour, though a list such as Newfield's obviously cannot please everyone. Christopher Hitchens (who is not a New Yorker but who is a regular visitor to the city) would, one imagines, include the Cafe Loup on West Thirteenth Street on his list. Hitchens' fond appreciation of the restaurant appears in the May issue of the American Spectator. (I must thank him for introducing me to the Loup seven years ago: It is where a lot of my own New York life has subsequently taken place.) "Even though New York has a more bewitching range of bars and restaurants than any other city on earth,"  Hitchens writes, "I have often taxied many blocks or got others to do the same, in order to be reassured that I wasn't wrong the first time and that some verities still hold."

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FOLLOW THE FICTION
The so-called Arkansas Project, the plan hatched by the AmericanSpectator in the mid-1990s to discredit Bill Clinton—in which the newly confirmed Solicitor General, Ted Olson, may or may not have played a part—always seemed to have an affinity with the fiction of Don DeLillo or James Ellroy. And never more so than now, what with publication of Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, his successor to American Tabloid. As in Ellroy's book, the organizers of the project toyed with certain historical and tabloid assumptions, which can be summarized like so: Arkansas was a corrupt state, ergo Bill Clinton is a corrupt politician. Not even in their wildest dreams could the perpetrators have thought that their target would so fully assume the mask they had so hoped to see him wear. Following the money—the Whitewater investigation—had mostly led nowhere, even if various sleazy types were indicted and jailed. Following the fiction—or continuing to propagate it—proved more fruitful. Especially when Bill Clinton chose to flex Henry Kissinger's dictum about power as the greatest aphrodisiac and find it absolutely true. In his endeavors to hide his relations with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton appeared to become the Arkansas pol that the Arkansas Project had set out to brand him. Fact followed fiction. Now, however, with Clinton gone and the legal investigations closed, the same is true of the die-hard anti-Clintonites. They have come to believe that all the fictions they once disseminated about the president are true. In this sense, they now resemble the madly right-wing "historian" David Irving, the Holocaust denier, the man who forever overlooks the obvious and who cannot refrain from distorting the truth in pursuit of a fantasy.

AT THE RACES
Many people have known for years that a day at the races is more rewarding than, say, following the form of those bullet-point personalities otherwise known as celebrities or, if you live in New York, wasting most of a glorious weekend being closely monitored by the East-bound jam-cams of the Long Island Expressway. But now, if the New York Observer is anything to go by, horse racing is in, and this year famous racetracks across the land, such as Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Saratoga will doubtless will be filled with more enthusiasts than usual, though let's pray the Euro-detritus washes up in the Hamptons. In this week's edition of the Manhattan weekly, Elizabeth Mitchell writes about Jorge Chavez, who rode Monarchos to victory at this year's Kentucky Derby. Both man and horse are contenders for this weekend's Preakness race at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack. As Mitchell reports, last year Chavez won "$103,144,082 for his owners, trainers, agent and himself." According Monarchos' trainer, the jockey's skill lies in his ability to move his 4 foot 10 inch frame. He has a "very quick motion with his body and his hands [which] keep[s] a horse in a good, long, full stride, and while he's doing it he's waving his whip, and the whip is coming very, very close to the animal, but he hardly ever touches the animal. He might brush it against him. But he doesn't just reach up and do the chop-chop." In the same edition of the Observer, the novelist Jane Smiley explains how the Derby was won by a horse that had not previously shown much aptitude to run on harder, more Californian surfaces.

LIFE LESSONS
The biographer, critic, and publisher James Atlas (who trusses his neck in a bow-tie) has written an article for Brill's Content  about the reception of his life of Saul Bellow. He chooses not to attack the critics who disliked his portrait of the novelist or to thank those who admired it; rather, the varied appraisals of the biography lead him to conclude that something is wrong with literary society itself. There is, he says, no literary "authority," no universal scale that critics can agree upon to judge the merit of a new book. That's as it may be, but surely his work as a biographer and as a reviewer of countless literary biographies for the New York Times Book Review should have informed Atlas that even in the best of times, when novelists are venerated, discord rules. Atlas' disillusionment, however, seems less about literary society than about his own attachment to a society that he once scrambled to join. (A few years ago, he wrote of his difficulties reading Jane Eyre while a copy of House & Garden, with its "fabulous apartments, country homes, awesome chateaus and estates" lay nearby.) The man who came to New York by way of Harvard, who once saw an affinity between himself and a character in a Bellow novel, and who hoped to emulate the lives of his former literary heroes by knowing their every detail, is now grasping that what he once found affecting about the New York of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and the New York intellectuals, lay in the writing of these authors, not in the lives they lived nor in the illusion that his own life would imitate their art.

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PRIVATE LIVES Richard Holmes, whose many biographical subjects include Coleridge and Shelley, is to become a professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia; though he wonders whether the subject can flourish in an academic setting. "Can it be done?" he writes in the Sunday Times. "The current popularity of the genre—with 3,500 new titles published each year—is not in dispute. … But can it be taught? How will it—'the most delicate and the most humane of all the branches of the art of writing,' as Lytton Strachey once called it—survive the buckshot of postmodern jargon, the ideological damnations, the old historicism and the new reception theory, the whole terrible fiery shirt of abstract theory?" Other writers, however, such as Charles Simic and John Barrell, have suggested that biography has already become a wayward art, even outside academia. In a review of James Atlas' portrait of Saul Bellow, Simic says "the best of biographies can be both enjoyable and exasperating. The general rule seems to be, the more one knows about someone's life, the more impatient and judgmental one is about him or her. Since we all have plenty of troubles of our own, other people's failings, spelled out at great length, tend to get tiresome." In an assessment of Holmes' biography of Coleridge, Barrell observes: "It is, very largely, a vie privée, even a 'secret life,' and if approving reviewers have not expected a 'literary biography' to be anything else, that may be a measure of how far the notion that biography is the new novel has become established, and has persuaded us that, as in the novel, 'real' life is lived within—in private, inside the head, though not, especially, in the part of the head that does the thinking."

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WHO WROTE THE BELL JAR—WHO? WHO-WHO, WHO-WHO?
It would seem that everyone has an opinion about the marriage of Ted and Sylvia. Or at least an opinion about the circumstances of Plath's death. Or indeed about why Ted Hughes was so guarded about his wife and her work. Their marriage has never ceased to provoke controversy ever since Plath gassed herself to death in London in 1963. Indeed, hardly a year goes by without further revelations about one of the 20th century's most celebrated and tragic marriages. There was the appearance of Plath's journals in 2000; now in 2001, Emma Tennant has written a novel based on her affair with Hughes in the 1960s; Elaine Feinstein has recently delivered her biography of Hughes to her London publishers. And Jill Barber's autobiography—she claims she was Hughes lover for four years in the 1970s—will appear later in the year. By far the most sensational of Barber's charges is that Hughes, not Plath, wrote The Bell Jar. In the Daily Mail, Matthew Evans, chairman of Hughes' publisher and a close friend of the poet, said of the allegation: "The idea that Ted claimed to actually have written The Bell Jar is utterly preposterous." A movie of Hughes and Plath is being planned, with Cate Blanchett as Plath.