Tuesday, March 17, 2009

News of the World

I Think I Get That Hitler Was a Philistine. If you read The New York Times alone, in the last couple of months you would have had the opportunity to discover that the infamous dictator had "shocking" table manners, an expensive phonograph on which he was fond of listening to recordings of Wagner and Beethoven "with great emotion, if not artistic appreciation", and a library of 16,000 books arrayed in cases--"...handsome piece(s) of furniture with scalloped molding"--in which Anti-Semitic screeds and artless paeans to German nationalism were more favored and read than the serious works of literature, history, philosophy, etc, that one would expect to find on a real book lover's shelves. An internet search turns up lots more damning revelations of the Fuhrer's intellectual destitution, including this gem by the always reliable Francine Prose--who has displayed an unusual concern with the way people behave in art museums on several occasions during the course of her career--in which we find out that not only did the imbecile Hitler think Michelangelo and Caravaggio were the same person, but(though he famously aspired to be a painter, and might therefore be supposed to have some passing interest in technique) lied to his guide that he was admiring the play of light and shadow in the works on display, when in fact he was oscillating between being turned on--inappropriately so it is implied--by an erotic depiction by Corregio of Leda and the Swan and seeking reassurance of Rembrandt's disdain for Jews. Hitler's own paintings of course are predictably skewered not merely as the strangely sterile nonentities they are (strange given the popular image of their producer as in great part a raving lunatic), but as the productions of a singularly mean, hidebound, profoundly talentless and unimaginative intellect by every respectable person who considers them. Even his drinking habits--he would have a glass of beer or two with dinner, and nothing more--were cast in a dubious light by his guests and other commenters, whom one must assume were more accustomed to dinners where the Veuve Clicquot, as well as the joviality, the pretty girls, the cross-dressing and so on flowed freely all the way through dessert (at which by the way it was reported the Fuhrer frequently ate plates of cake which contributed to his having an unflattering physique), which was apparently not the case when dining with Hitler.

My problem with this is not that people are piling on Hitler, though I have always thought there were some rather unpleasant implications in this eagerness to emphasize Hitler's inferior background, education and understanding of beautiful things and difficult ideas to the person doing the emphasizing, as if his lack of suavity, bad taste in books, and inability to paint and properly appreciate music were identifiable causes and giveaway symbols of his unfortunate character. It is a convenient and self-serving means, for intellectuals especially, to disassociate themselves from him, and any taint of his ideology, but how important was it really? Yes, some real humanism properly grasped of the Thomas More variety would have made a great difference in him; it would with most people, I presume. I wonder though if it had only been some attractive trappings of humanism, if it would not have had some effect on the view of his legitimacy, which I always take to be one of the great issues people have with Hitler, as opposed to other murderous despots. Understood as an inherently inferior person, especially one who seems to have sought some level of culture and conventional social acceptance and failed to achieve it, his ascension to and abuse of power is seen as that much more illegitimate, and compounds the sickness people feel at his rule. This creep was easily enough denied a place in art school, popularity, love, etc, as a private citizen; how could he have gained the power of state machinery, armies, etc, so absolutely?

World Baseball Classic Semi-Defense. Not that I am following it. The format is clunky, the whole concept has been way too forced, the participation is oddly reluctant--there is too much adult supervision in general--but the constant sarcasm and negativity of the American sporting press directed at the event is getting on my nerves. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of an international baseball competition. I would prefer the event were a lot more organic, and had less of the stink of marketing about it, that some measure of enthusiasm had preceded organization too. What really is angering me about the whole event--and it is probably worse in New England than anywhere else--is the obsession on the part equally of fans, management and media with potential injuries and overworking pitchers. When did this idea that strong and healthy men in the prime of life are at constant risk of hurting themselves if not carefully monitored take such hold in the culture. I understand that guys make too much money now to be completely inattentive to the possibility of a serious injury, but until very recently it was not unusual for pro ballplayers, including stars and pitchers, to play a decent amount of competitive baseball in the off-season. Besides things like all-star tours of Japan, which date back to the days of Babe Ruth, the Caribbean winter leagues featured lots of big league talent, including almost all of the players who were natives of that region. The U.S. media for the most part didn't pay much attention to "winter ball", but it was a real thing, and I don't recall a lot of established players getting hurt in these leagues. Going back even further of course to the pre-World War II era, various teams of big leaguers would barnstorm around the countryside in the offseason playing games against local teams, college teams, The House of David, black teams. Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige once pitched against each other in one of these exhibitions that ended 1-0 in 18 innings, both pitchers of course going the whole way (the mere thought of this would be enough to give a modern GM a coronary). Again, I don't recall reading about too many established players getting seriously hurt in these games. Anyway, I suspect life was understood to be generally more hazardous in that era. The fear of injuries was not as pervasive as it is now; and I don't think it had occurred to the executives of that time that they could forbid a grown man to do a whole list of activities wherein he might get hurt, as is standard in contracts today, unless they paid him more, which they were also far less willing to do. It is really the paranoia that has taken root among the fans that a guy might get injured in a non-major league game (or in one, for that matter) that I don't get. It's time to back away from ESPN, the Sons of Sam Horn.com, Curt Schilling's blog (he's against the WBC, by the way) whatever. This business of reporting on television if a guy was favoring his ankle during infield or skipped batting practice--it's ridiculous. Until a guy misses at least three games in a row, or two starts as a pitcher, I don't consider that to be an "injury" that needs to be reported.

Demise of the Pub/Tavern/Hospoda Such as Everyone Supposedly Loves so Much. This week it is the genuine Irish pub whose position has reached the critical stage. The British pub has moved beyond that threshhold for some time, and the kind of hard-drinking, happy hour lasts all day-type American bar that was once ubiquitous in our urban areas and familiar from a thousand black-and-white movies has been slowly grinding to extinction, and the moment may have already arrived. There weren't many left twenty years ago, and those were accidental, a matter of old ownership that hadn't bothered to update the decor or menu since 1958. The raw numbers of bars are in decline too. According to one study, there are 1,321 taverns currently in Chicago today, down from nearly 7,000 in 1947, and the numbers of bars in Philadelphia has declined 33% since 1971 (I can vouch for this personally. When I was a kid if there was an intersection with a traffic light, there was almost guaranteed to be a bar, if not two, on the corner. Spotting the corner bars was actually a game we used to play while driving around in town). The traditional Czech pub, which is a wonderful place that is even less organized to bring in the necessary 21st-century levels of income flows than these other dying sorts of establishments, must be hearing the footsteps of the grim reaper (though it must have the lowest overhead/set-up cost of any business I've ever seen. A large room, a few tables and chairs and ratty tablecloths, a couple of shelves with about ten bottles of hard liquor, a rack for glasses, and a small counter to set your one beer tap--the beer is always good, so it doesn't matter that you've only got one kind--and you're in business). And oh yes, the number of French cafes has declined from 600,000 or so in the mid-20th century to 41,000 today and dropping. What the hell are people doing with their lives?

I want to end the post, so while I would like to delve more into the causes of these, in my opinion, catastrophic developments, I think the main reason has to be that unfortunately their model, as solo establishments especially, just isn't economically viable anymore. Even a handful of alcoholics or bohemians sitting around for hours nursing $2 drinks and sipping 60 cent coffees might have sufficed to pay the bills in 1910, or 1960--and in the Czech Republic, which still has a pretty primitive economy, or at least did in the mid to late 90s, this kind of low-level economic activity still provides some value--but it can't compete on the (macro-level?) in 2009.

Addendum: Upon further rumination, some of the statistics cited in the last section are either misleading or do not pass the muster of probability. While the number of bars in Philadelphia may well have decreased 33% since 1970, the city's population has decreased about the same percentage in that period, from around 2.1 million to 1.4 million, where it appears for the moment at least to have stabilized. The effect of this decreased population, as well as the consequent decrease in the number of bars, is obviously noticeable however to anyone who has been familiar with the city over this span of years. The numbers on the French cafes in the heyday of that institution have to be way too high. When there supposedly 600,000 cafes in France the population of the entire nation was around 40 million tops. One cafe for every 65 people? The same article I linked to states there were 200, 000 cafes in Paris alone. The current population of the city of Paris proper is around 2 million, and I don't think it has shrunk appreciably in the last century. That would mean there was 1 cafe for every 10 residents of the city, not to mention that one or two people at least would always have to be working. There is no way that figure can be accurate.

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